New to the whistleblower retaliation toolbox? Malpractice reports

Note: To hear from whistleblowers themselves, tune into the National Whistleblower Day event on Tuesday.

The National Physicians Malpractice Database is supposed to protect patients. Now, one Vermont whistleblower says it is being used to punish her for filing a complaint against the former head of anesthesiology of White River Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The Boston Globe reports that Dr. Jennifer Keller was fired in October after she leveled allegations of assault, medical negligence, and whistleblower retaliation against the doctor. She was one of four female employees at White River Junction who filed whistleblower complaints against Dr. Fima Lenkovsky with the VA’s Office of Special Counsel. The paper reports the agency is investigating the allegations after determining they contained a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing.”

The story notes that Keller continues to teach at Dartmouth College medical school. But her lawyer tells the Globe that the VA has accused Keller of delivering poor care and has reported her dismissal to the National Practitioner Data Bank. While not open to the public, the database can be used by health facilities to screen applicants.

The story includes a quote that will sound familiar to anyone who has worked with whistleblowers.

“This has shaken me to my soul,” said Keller.“I am naive, and this has been an ugly process.”

Comments the VA delivered to Globe list complaints about Keller and Christine Murphy, the hospital’s chief nurse anesthetist. Murphy has reported that Lenkovsky assaulted her when he “intentionally struck her arm during a difficult operation, a blow she said was hard enough to bruise her forearm.”

The VA see it differently.

In a recent statement to the Globe, VA officials dismissed the allegation as “blatantly dishonest” and “disrespectful to actual assault victims, which Murphy is clearly not.”

They said that the contact was accidental and that Lenkovsky reflexively pushed away an oxygen bag that Murphy had allowed to obstruct his vision. VA officials described Murphy’s action as a “direct violation of protocol” by her at a pivotal and potentially life-threatening moment.

The Globe reports that Murphy did not face any discipline for her alleged mistake. Apparently, there were eight witness who saw this incident and will be able to clear this up.

In its statement, the hospital said Keller’s dismissal was unrelated to the OR incident. Instead, she was terminated for leaving anesthetized patients “unattended” — a claim that Keller disputes.

“The bottom line is that at VA, patient safety comes first in all that we do,” a hospital spokeswoman said. “It’s unfortunate that Murphy and Keller are either unaware of or don’t care about this crucial fact.”

 Dr. Stewart Levenson, a former VA official who served as medical services director for the New England system during 18 years at the agency, see it differently. He told the Globe: 

“This is perhaps the most shocking case of misuse of the disciplinary process that I can recall from my VA experience, one that fails on any level to pass the ‘sniff’ test,” he wrote to VA attorneys. “The removal of Dr. Keller is not only extreme but unprecedented.”

VA PHOTO: Robert Wilkie, Secretary of the Veterans Affairs greets staff during his visit at WRJ VAMC

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