Hospital employee claims she was fired for whistleblowing

October 22, 2013

WAYNESBURG – A former employee of Southwest Regional Medical Center claims she was fired from her job after she requested that alleged violations of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act be reported to the Department of Health and to the Patient Safety Authority.

Marie Gillispie of Rogersville was employed at SWRMC as director of acute care services from January 2011 to September 3, 2012, when she was named the quality project coordinator, a position she held until she was terminated from the hospital November 1, 2012.

On Tuesday, Gillispie filed a lawsuit against her former employer, contending she was tasked with investigating the death of an Intensive Care Unit patient by SWRMC CEO Cynthia Cowie and reporting her findings to her.

Gillispie alleges in the suit that her investigation revealed that the nursing staff and the respiratory therapist failed in their duty to provide competent medical care to the patient. Gillispie categorized the care as “grossly negligent,” and stated it was her belief that the patient’s death was unnecessary and likely preventable.

Gillispie said she reported the findings to Cowie on or about Oct. 23, 2012, and asked if she was to report the incident to the Patient Care Authority. Gillispie alleges Cowie told her no such report was to be made and that the state was at the hospital a little over a month prior and it could not afford another investigation. Gillispie asked if a letter could be sent to the patient’s family explaining the circumstances of the patient’s care and death and was told no letter was to be written, according to the suit.

Gillispie claims she then went to Taryn Hughes, the lead respiratory therapist at the hospital and Darla Bricker, the patient care manager, to communicate to them the hospital’s obligation to report this and notify the family, informing them that Cowie would not permit this. Next, Gillispie allegedly spoke with her supervisor, Pam Carroll, telling her the same thing.

In the lawsuit, Gillispie claims a third violation of patient care also went unreported, despite her efforts. Gillispie said this patient, a female who came to the emergency room at SWRMC with abdominal pain, was determined to have a perforated bowel that resulted in peritonitis. The patient required immediate surgery, Gillispie said, but was not operated on until the following day. According to Gillispie, the patient was then transferred to the Intensive Care Unit, ventilator dependent. Several days later she was transferred to another facility for long-term acute care patients where, upon admission, nurses there photographed the patient.

A physician with privileges at SWRMC and at this long-term care facility brought the photos to SWRMC, according to Gillispie. Gillispie said the photos showed ulcers and necrosis, a sign of infection, that were alleged to have developed while the patient was still under the care of SWRMC.

Gillispie said she went to Cowie to discuss the care rendered to this patient and emphasized that an investigation needed to be completed. According to Gillispie, Cowie said there would be no investigation and that it would be a “million dollar lawsuit” if the patient’s family were to find out. Gillispie said Cowie directed her to not tell Bricker anything further about this incident.

Gillispie said she was part of a meeting, held Oct. 24, 2012, with Cowie and others where she reported violations of the EMTALA. Gillispie said she told those present at this meeting that a pregnant patient, who had been in the emergency department at SWRMC, was referred to Uniontown Hospital. She alleged that staff at SWRMC failed to contact a physician at Uniontown Hospital to accept the patient, failed to contact and give a verbal order to a nurse there, and failed to arrange transportation for the patient to Uniontown Hospital. These are all violations of the EMTALA, according to the lawsuit.

Gillispie said she told Cowie that it was SWRMC’s duty to report the EMTALA violation to the Department of Health and the Patient Safety Authority. Cowie allegedly responded that no reports were to be made, the suit contends.

Gillispie said she continued to insist that the violations be reported but was reminded by Cowie that the hospital had recently been the subject of two other EMTALA investigations. Gillispie said Cowie said no one was to report the new alleged violation because the Department of Health would be on them. Gillispie claims that she approached Carroll after the meeting to tell her that she could not believe Cowie was not going to report the violation or permit other employees from reporting it.

On Oct. 25, 2012, another meeting was held where Gillispie said she again told those present that it was imperative that the hospital report the violation. According to the lawsuit, Gillispie said Cowie responded by saying, “We can’t report this. We just got a letter (regarding the most recent of the two investigations). It’s clear-cut that we are not going to report this.”

According to the lawsuit, two investigators from the Pennsylvania Department of Health were at SWRMC Oct. 26, 2012, to investigate a complaint from a male patient and his son. The family allegedly complained that the patient received poor care and that nurses involved in the case had not been disciplined, as had been represented by the hospital, Gillispie said. She said she was interviewed by the investigators regarding the handling of this patient’s care and what discipline, if any, had been administered to the nurses responsible for said care. Gillispie said she told the truth and was accused by Cowie of “throwing” a co-worker “under the bus.” Gillispie said Cowie then directed her to leave the premises and Nov. 1, 2012, she was fired by Cowie.

Gillispie said lying to the investigators would have been a crime under the Nursing Standards of Conduct that states, “a registered nurse may not knowingly aid, abet or assist another person to violate or circumvent a law or board regulation.”

Gillispie’s attorney, Noah Geary, said the firing was a violation of the public policy exception for at-will employment that provides for whistleblower protections. It specifically states that a hospital employee may not be penalized or have adverse actions taken against them because they report a violation of the EMTALA.

Geary said SWRMC has given numerous, and clearly different reasons, for firing Gillispie. Among those reasons are an alleged falsified document by Gillispie; Gillispie failing to provide complete details to Cowie about a specific incident; and that Gillispie provided incorrect documentation to investigators from the Department of Health. Geary said his client denies these allegations.

The official comment from Joy Eggleston, Senior Public Affairs Officer at Southwest Regional Medical Center, is that the hospital “has not officially been served with any lawsuit.”

Gillipsie is seeking damages of $75,000 for loss of back and future pay, loss of back and future benefits, emotional distress, her professional reputation, loss of earnings capacity, loss of community standing and other financial losses, related to her dismissal from SWRMC.

Other parties to the lawsuit are Essent Health Care, Inc., and Regional Care Hospital Partners, Inc., who own and operate SWRMC, according to the lawsuit filed in the United States District Court Western District of Pennsylvania.

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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