The qui tam lawyers at Pintas & Mullins Law Firm often write about whistleblower lawsuits in the healthcare industry, specifically concerning Medicare and Medicaid fraud. Although this is an important issue, we would also like to highlight a recent whistleblower case concerning the Womack Army Medical Center. The whistleblower in that case, Teresa Gilbert, recently settled with the U.S. Army over claims involving retaliation.
Gilbert is the former infection control analyst at Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In January 2014, Gilbert reported failures in infection control policies and regulations at the hospital, which posed a significant threat to patient safety and health. Two months later, the Joint Commission (a non-profit that accredits hospitals) found that Womack was in fact failing to follow medical protocols.
After she reported the failures, Gilbert was the target of escalating retaliation by her supervisors. She was not allowed to speak to hospital inspectors, was not told about the inspectors’ findings, and was barred from helping her coworkers correct the problems found. Gilbert was the only person working on the infection control team who was qualified to make these changes; and since she was barred from knowing about or helping fix the deficiencies, the hospital and its patients suffered greatly.
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The Joint Commissions’ inspection led to months of turmoil at Womack, including a full week of operation shut down, senior leadership dismissal, and disciplinary action against hospital managers. Instead of using Gilbert as a valuable resource to enact change, her supervisor cut her hours in half. The Army then charged Gilbert with being absent without leave for the reductions in her schedule.
In July 2014, the medical commander wrote Gilbert a letter saying she had failed to assist her coworkers, that her peers characterized her as an obstruction and difficult to work with. When she tried to explain that she was being retaliated against, her supervisor reprimanded her for misconduct. Gilbert was then removed from infection control and placed in administration without any clear duties. Ultimately, in October 2014, Gilbert was fired for improperly accessing patient information.
The Office of Special Counsel (OSC) – an independent federal agency established to protect whistleblowers within the government – opened an investigation into Gilbert’s claims. OSC found no basis for Gilbert’s firing, noted that there was no investigation into the incident, and found that all parties who allegedly complained about Gilbert denied that they had done so. OSC further stated that instead of retaliation against Gilbert, the Army should have focused on how to best correct Womack’s problems.
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As a result of OSC’s investigation, the Army agreed to settle with Gilbert in an undisclosed amount. Gilbert is now retired, and told the New York Times that she pursued the issue so intensely to make sure other people would not be afraid to come forward in the future. OSC emphasized this, stating that Gilbert’s case underscores why whistleblower protections are so important.
In the United States it is illegal to fire or retaliate against employees for reporting fraud. Protecting workers is critically important to making sure that people who know about illegal misconduct feel comfortable and safe reporting it. Whistleblowers in the U.S. also reap rewards as high as 30% of recovered funds in these cases. This ensures whistleblowers have incentive to come forward.
If you have any information about fraud against the government, contact one of our qui tam lawyers immediately. Only the first individual to file a claim has the right to recover compensation, however, so speaking to an attorney before anyone else is of utmost importance. Our attorneys offer free, confidential consultations to whistleblowers throughout the country.