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Army's handling of whistleblower retaliation case criticized by US Office of Special Counsel

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is urging the Army to reconsider its initial rejection to discipline a supervisor at Womack Army Medical Center for retaliating against an employee who reported issues with infection control.

JOE HARLAN/WOMACK ARMY MEDICAL CENTER

By AMANDA DOLASINSKI | The Fayetteville Observer (Tribune News Service) | Published: February 7, 2018

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel is urging the Army to reconsider its initial rejection to discipline a supervisor at Womack Army Medical Center for retaliating against an employee who reported issues with infection control to a higher authority that led to a stand-down of hospital operations in 2014.

In a report released Monday, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner said the Army should weigh the evidence and reconsider its decision to discipline the supervisor, who is not named. The supervisor took action to change job duties and ultimately terminate Teresa Gilbert, a former infection preventionist, who reported problems at the hospital to the Joint Commission, which accredits hospitals.

The Army told the counsel it didn't agree with the findings and rejected the recommendation. The office of the Secretary of the Army did not immediately respond to requests for comments from the Fayetteville Observer on Monday.

The supervisor was upset Gilbert sent information to the Joint Commission and blamed her for the commission's decision to move up the date to survey the hospital. The supervisor was heard making statements "to get rid" of Gilbert and that Gilbert "is tearing this place down," according to the report from the Office of Special Counsel.

"The evidence clearly demonstrates that (supervisor) took personnel actions against Gilbert because she made disclosures and engaged in protecting activity," according to the counsel's report from June 2017.

Kerner said Gilbert's disclosures led to improvements that likely saved the lives of soldiers at Womack. The supervisor who attempted to muffle her disclosures should be punished, he said.

"(The supervisor's) pattern of actions against Gilbert aggravated the seriousness of the hospital's infection control problems, increased the risk of harm to hospital patients and likely served as a deterrence to others to blow the whistle on threats to patient health and safety," according to the counsel. "The latter is of particular importance because the government depends on the courage of employees like Teresa Gilbert to speak up when they see dangers an inefficiencies, especially when patient health and safety is at stake."

Gilbert's case dates to January 2014, when she contacted the Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization that accredits hospitals across the country, to report problems with Womack's infection control.

Some of the issues she complained about included the lack of an infection prevention control plan and the hospital failing to reduce the risk of infections associated with medical equipment, devices and supplies.

Gilbert said she tried for weeks to talk to administrators about the problems, but they refused to listen to her advice or correct the problems. Her complaint to the Joint Commission coupled with a patient death potentially stemming from safety issues at Womack brought the Joint Commission to the hospital.

Eventually, the Army launched an investigation and subsequently removed the hospital's chief and disciplined several managers.

Gilbert, however, faced reprisal, according to the Office of Special Counsel.

Her hours were cut in half, federal officials said. She was issued a letter of concern accusing her of failing to assist her coworkers for the same problems she spoke out against.

Gilbert was removed from her infection control duties and assigned to an administrative job without explanation, according to the Office of Special Counsel.

She later received a notice of proposed removal for inappropriately accessing a patient's medical information. The Office of Special Counsel found there was no basis for the proposed removal.

In October 2015, the Army reached a settlement with Gilbert, but declined to say how much money was paid to her.

"(Gilbert) put her livelihood on the line to come forward, and in return was threatened with removal," Kerner said. "Her bravery deserves full justice, not partial measures. That includes achieving accountability from those directly involved in trying to shut her out. I urge the Army to reconsider its findings exonerating Ms. Gilbert's supervisor from whistleblower retaliation and take appropriate disciplinary action."

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