SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A former Sanford Health neurosurgeon is suing the health system, claiming it was wrong to fire him amid a federal lawsuit over accusations he was taking kickbacks and performing unnecessary surgeries.

Dr. Wilson Asfora is claiming Sanford fired him to force him to reach a settlement with federal prosecutors and to save a planned massive merger with an Iowa health system.

Asfora claims he was the target of several doctors, including his supervisor, who had schemed for years to get him in trouble and force him out, as Sanford officials looked the other way. Sanford's decision to fire him was done in collaboration with the Justice Department, he said.

"The federal government wanted Sanford to terminate Dr. Asfora because an unemployed neurosurgeon is a lot easier to defeat in litigation than a neurosurgeon who has ongoing income to afford to mount a defense," Asfora said in the complaint.

Asfora filed the lawsuit in federal court in Sioux Falls on Thursday.

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"It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves in this situation with Dr. Asfora. For all parties involved, we are sorry that it has gotten to this point," said Micah Aberson, Sanford Health executive vice president, in an emailed statement. "We are currently reviewing his allegations and look forward to discussing this matter with his legal counsel."

The surgeon was at the center of a whistleblower lawsuit initially filed in 2016 by two Sanford surgeons, Drs. Dustin Bechtold and Bryan Wellman. They claimed Asfora got kickbacks for using medical devices in his surgeries purchased from a company he owned, and performed unnecessary surgeries. The suit alleged Sanford officials knew about Asfora's activities and covered them up. The federal government joined the lawsuit last year.

Sanford officials initially expressed support for Asfora, calling the suit's claims bogus. But on Sept. 24, they fired him. The following month Sanford settled the suit with federal prosecutors, agreeing to pay $20.25 million and cooperate with the government about Asfora. Sanford didn't admit to any fault in the settlement.

In November, the Justice Department filed suit against only Asfora and two medical device companies he owned and operated, Medical Designs LLC and Sicage LLC. That suit is ongoing.

In his just-filed lawsuit against Sanford, Asfora claims Sanford looked the other way as a number of Sanford physicians, including Wellman and Asfora's supervisor, Sanford Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Wilde, conspired against Asfora.

"Among other things, Dr. Wilde confided to Dr. Asfora's persecutors that it was his plan to "annoy the (expletive) out of this guy and see if he leaves" but that he would enact this plan carefully and deliberately so he and Sanford would not get sued," the suit claims.

Asfora claims Wellman and others wrote an anonymous letter signed "Concerned Physicians" to the South Dakota Board of Medical Examiners. The letter contained accusations about Asfora, his work with patients and use of medical devices he sold in surgeries.

Both the Board of Medical Examiners and several Sanford investigations cleared Asfora of any wrongdoing, according to the complaint.

Sanford's "internal calculus changed," due to a pending merger, Asfora claimed. In July, Sanford and Iowa-based UnityPoint Health announced plans to merge. The merged systems would have become one of the 15 largest nonprofit health systems, with $11 billion in combined revenue.

"Sanford's about-face was precipitated by a belief that settlement was advisable to permit the UnityPoint merger to move forward," according to the complaint.

The planned merger collapsed in November. Sanford CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft said UnityPoint had abruptly called off talks.