Health center settles whistleblower retaliation suit with $125k payout

Hospital Safety Insider, June 22, 2017

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High-ranking workers went to outside regulators and the press for help

Charter Oak Health Center in Hartford, Conn., has agreed to pay $125,000 to three former employees who were fired on the same day more than five years ago after drawing attention to the facility’s handling of a case that exposed workers to tuberculosis.

The U.S Department of Labor (DOL) conducted an investigation, deemed the workers “whistleblowers,” and accused their former employer of illegal retaliation. In a statement announcing the settlement Monday, OSHA’s New England regional solicitor, Michael Felsen, emphasized the theme of this case: Employers must let their workers complain.

“We remind companies that employees have a legal right to raise health and safety concerns about their workplaces without fear of retaliation, and that it’s in the interest of everyone to address those concerns,” Felsen said.

Charter Oak’s leadership issued a statement Monday noting that it hasn’t admitted to any wrongdoing and “continues to believe that there were legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons for the terminations of each of the three individuals.” Nonetheless, significant progress has been made, the statement added.

“We have dramatically improved our infection control processes since 2012 and have had no further incidents,” said Nichelle Mullins, president and CEO, and Kristen Harris, chief compliance officer. “We currently have collaborative relationships with the City of Hartford and the Department of Health and other agencies that serve our patients and all suspected TB exposures are handled in an exemplary manner.”

The case dates back to December 2011, when a Charter Oak dentist learned that one of the facility’s patients was infected with TB. That patient later died, and two workers tested positive for TB, according to the DOL’s complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut.

Doreen Coburn, who was Charter Oak’s interim senior vice president of operations at the time, spoke with state inspectors during an unannounced visit in January 2012 about the TB threat to healthcare workers, and she wrote letters to then-President and CEO Alfreda Turner, the Board of Directors, and state oversight agencies to urge further action.

Unsatisfied with the response she received, Coburn took her cause to the news media on February 3, 2012, and a Fox News crew showed up at the facility that day, according to the complaint.

“She felt that employees of Charter Oak had the right to know about the TB and that Charter Oak management had not informed its employees and patients of the harm to which they were exposed,” the complaint states.

Mullins, who was then the vice president of compliance and legal affairs, told the media that Charter Oak had known about the TB case for only about 24 hours—a statement Coburn saw as a lie.

Coburn returned to the media to “correct that lie,” filed a complaint with OSHA, and testified to the Connecticut Department of Public Health before she was fired February 24, 2012. The following month, about 140 people were screened for TB, and three of them received treatment, the Hartford Courant reported.

Coburn will receive $85,000, less taxes, pursuant to the consent judgment. Germaine Washington, who supervised medical assistants and coordinated the Healthy Start program until she was fired the same day as Coburn, will receive $30,000, less taxes, pursuant to the agreement. Angela Griffin-Wimberly, who was director of nursing, died earlier this year. Her estate will receive $10,000, less taxes.

Workers who believe their employers have retaliated against them for taking part in protected conduct can request that the DOL’s Whistleblower Protection Program ( investigate.

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