In public, UHS encourages its employees to report problems to supervisors or through the company’s compliance program. “UHS will not retaliate or tolerate any retaliation against you for reporting in good faith,” says the company’s compliance manual.
Behind closed doors, however, UHS has a history of retaliating against workers who advocate for better patient care. According to lawsuits and reports, UHS workers have been fired for reporting concerns about care to regulators and company management.
The many cases of alleged retaliation at UHS reveal the fundamental flaw with the company’s compliance program. Unlike other investor-owned hospital companies, UHS does not have an independent committee on its board of directors to oversee quality of care concerns and corporate compliance issues.
Without that independent committee, even the most strongly worded compliance manual is in danger of becoming a dead letter. The cases of alleged retaliation summarized below — just a few of the many documented on this website — suggest that there’s a troubling gap between words and deeds in UHS’s compliance program.
“Bruising, Black Eyes and Chokeholds”
In September 2014, NBC News ran a report on disturbing stories of abuse, even death, at UHS’s National Deaf Academy (NDA) in Mt. Dora, Fla. The report featured interviews with two former therapists at NDA, Kyle Gilrain and Carol Savage, who told NBC they “saw bruising, black eyes and chokeholds at the facility in 2012, but they felt pressure from the former CEO to cover it up.”
Gilrain and Savage went ahead anyway and expressed their concerns to both state regulators and management at UHS. They allege that they were fired for doing so. They detailed those allegations in a lawsuit filed in April 2013.
Gilrain said he reported cases of abuse, neglect and overmedication to Florida’s Department of Children and Families (DCF) and to the Agency for Health Care Administration. Then, in September 2012, Gilrain sent an email to the compliance office at UHS detailing multiple cases of unlawful conduct. According to the lawsuit, “Gilrain was terminated from NDA only hours after he sent [that] email to the UHS Corporate Compliance Officer.”
Savage told NBC News things had gotten so bad at NDA that she called a state abuse hotline 12 times in a six-week period. called the abuse hotline 12 times in a six-week period.”)’] Eventually, she wrote a letter to UHS President Alan Miller in October 2012 expressing her concerns about care at NDA. Roughly two weeks after sending that letter, Savage was fired.
In their lawsuit, Gilrain and Savage also charge the NDA administration with refusing to report incidents of suspected abuse to the Florida Department of Children and Families and instructing staff to only use corporate UHS forms to document such incidents. As of February 23 2015, Gilrain and Savage’s lawsuit is still ongoing. and NDA is one of the 18 UHS facilities under investigation by federal authorities.
The “Drive By” Therapy Case
Three former therapists at UHS’s Keystone Marion Youth Center in Marion, Va., charged in 2007 that they were fired for refusing to participate in fraudulent billing practices.
Megan Johnson, Leslie Webb, and Kimberly Stafford-Payne charged that UHS “engaged in various activities and techniques” to inflate the reimbursements it received from Medicaid. They alleged that UHS’s Marion facility overbilled for therapy sessions, billed brief interactions as full therapy sessions — what they termed “drive by” therapy — and provoked residents to justify a longer length of stay.
Their lawsuit also accused UHS of charging for therapy sessions provided by an unlicensed, unsupervised therapist, altering records, delaying discharges, and “deliberately understaffing the Youth Center.”
Federal and state authorities joined their false claims whistleblower case, and charged that UHS had engaged in the false billing practices from 2005 to 2010.
In 2012, UHS paid $6.85 million to the government to settle the charges. The workers received an additional undisclosed amount for their employment claims.
Fired for “Being Negative”?
Teresa Weeks worked as a mental health technician at UHS’s Keys of Carolina facility in Charlotte, N.C. In a lawsuit filed in 2011, Weeks alleged that she was fired after reporting patient care concerns to local management and to state officials.
According to Weeks’ lawsuit, “the director of nursing and the facility manager accused [Weeks] of creating power struggles, of being negative, and of being difficult. They also gave the Plaintiff false write-ups in order to create a pretext for firing her.” Although Weeks’ lawsuit was settled confidentially in March 2012, the troubles were not over for UHS.
In August 2012, the facility was cited for serious deficiencies in an inspection by state regulators. According to a local news report, “State officials said conditions in the facility were ‘found to be detrimental to the health and safety of the clients’ and was in the process of revoking the facility’s license.”
UHS officials had begun appealing the action, said the local report, but then they abruptly announced that they would voluntarily close the facility in February 2013. Though now closed, the Keys facility is one of the 18 UHS facilities under inspection by federal officials.
Seeking Real Protections for Caregivers
The above examples suggest that employees seeking to advocate for their patients at UHS facilities are not adequately protected from retaliation when they raise concerns.
UHS needs to create a dedicated committee on its Board of Directors to oversee patient quality of care and compliance with healthcare laws and regulations. This type of committee exists at UHS’s competitors. It’s time that the largest provider of inpatient behavioral health in the country should at least meet, if not exceed, the best practices in the industry.
Unfortunately, even with the ongoing investigations and patient care breakdowns outlined above, UHS CEO Alan Miller has argued that its “Board of Directors has a well-functioning audit committee and, working in conjunction with an extensive quality department, determined that an additional oversight organization is not required.”