By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The former medical director of Bay Clinic is suing the nonprofit health care organization, alleging that she was stripped of her authority and forced to resign after reporting the over-prescribing of narcotic painkillers by clinic physicians.
The lawsuit, filed June 6 in Hilo Circuit Court by attorney Ted Hong on behalf of Dr. Fatima C. Phillips, seeks unspecified monetary damages, as well as back salary and fringe benefits dating from May 13, 2011, the date Phillips resigned, plus attorney fees and interest. Hong called the suit “an unfortunate turn of events.”
“She was hired as a change agent and then it turned out they didn’t like the changes she made,” Hong said Friday.
Phillips started at Bay Clinic on Sept. 1, 2010. According to Bay Clinic’s annual report for 2009-2010, Phillips’ “impressive professional history includes serving as Director of Occupational Health Support for NASA, Medical Director for Boeing and General Motors, and Director of Health Services for the US Army.”
The report stated that Phillips “has already begun to implement what she describes as a ‘whatever it takes’ approach to her new position.”
“We couldn’t be happier to have Dr. Phillips on board,” said Paul Strauss, who was Bay Clinic’s CEO at the time. “She comes to us with a wealth of training and experience, extensive medical knowledge and a strong track record of leadership. She is passionate, determined, committed, and has already become an indispensable addition to our extraordinary team of providers.”
Apparently, that happiness didn’t last for long. The suit said that Phillips “became aware of a pre-existing problem concerning the over-prescription of highly addictive narcotics to Bay Clinic patients” and “directed Bay Clinic Staff to monitor the status of seventeen (17) Bay Clinic patients who overdosed on prescription medication they received from Bay Clinic.”
The suit states that Phillips “conducted an investigation and found some Bay Clinic patients were given prescriptions for multiple, highly addictive narcotics at high doses.”
The filing alleges that Phillips implemented “a policy of weaning down high dose prescription pain medication patients” and that the clinic’s management team approved of the plan. It also states that in December 2010, Phillips “met with federal and state law enforcement representatives to discuss and report on the excessive quantities of narcotics being prescribed by Bay Clinic physicians and being sold on the street to drug addicts.”
“They (law enforcement) actually came to her,” Hong said. “She had to meet with them to address that.”
According to the suit, in March 2011, Phillips started “experiencing resistance” from Bay Clinic’s management and staff “concerning her … policy to curb over-prescription of highly addictive pain medication” and later that spring, “several management team members actively undermined the policy.”
“When some of these people who were addicted to these products got irate and out of hand, all of a sudden, there’s no more pain management policy. You just go back to the old way of doing things,” Hong said.
The suit also alleges that Bay Clinic’s director of nursing was fired in March 2011 for extracting breast milk in the workplace to later feed to her 5-month-old baby while Phillips was on the mainland attending a medical conference. Upon her return, Phillips allegedly told the clinic’s human resources director that the termination gender discrimination and violated a state law that allows a nursing mother to extract breast milk in the workplace as long as it’s done in private and during a break.
Neither the former nursing director nor the human resources director were named, and Strauss is no longer with Bay Clinic.
According to the suit, Bay Clinic’s actions amounted to “constructively discharging” Phillips, and alleges wrongful termination as a “whistleblower” on the alleged over-prescription of narcotic painkillers and in “retaliation” for pointing out to her employer the alleged discriminatory nature of the nursing director’s discharge.
The filing states that Phillips has experienced “severe emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish (and) loss of enjoyment of life” due to Bay Clinic’s alleged “negligence.”
“If you look at the course of her career, she was the medical director of NASA (and) Boeing,” Hong said. “She’s handled large organizations and small, and they (Bay Clinic) actively sought her out. So it’s just unfortunate that you bring in somebody to change an institutional culture and then discard them. She was from Florida and she moved all the way across the country to be here for about six, seven months.”
Tanya Aynessazian, chairwoman of Bay Clinic’s Board of Directors, said Friday that she knew about the lawsuit but hadn’t seen it, and couldn’t comment on the allegations until she consults with the clinic’s board and lawyer.
“What I can say is it’s a shame,” Aynessazian said. “Whenever a nonprofit is sued it’s a real shame, because it takes away from the mission of the organization, no matter what organization it is.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.