Two physicians will receive more than $8.78 million in a yearslong wrongful termination lawsuit against Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), which fired them in 2013 for blowing the whistle on patient harm, according to a class arbitration ruling.
The doctors, Michael Romney and Faron Bauer, had accused the health care group of allowing an impaired physician to continue practicing without restrictions, according to a Friday statement from their attorney’s office, Blankenship Law Firm. They were fired after they raised their concerns.
They will receive the combined award from CHI, CHI Franciscan and Franciscan Medical Group (FMG), which operates 11 hospitals and multiple clinics in Western Washington, the statement said. Romney has since died, leaving his wife to represent his estate.
Romney and Bauer were fired in May 2013 without warning and without cause from St. Anthony’s Prompt Care — now known as Franciscan Prompt Care – Gig Harbor — the statement said. At the time, they were the longest-serving providers in FMG’s prompt-care facilities in Washington.
CHI did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While the doctors raised concerns about scheduling issues, frequent employee turnover and a lack of oversight at their hospital, the turning point came when one provider at the Gig Harbor facility began repeatedly exhibiting declining motor skills, confusion and incompetence, according to the arbitrator’s report.
Staff repeatedly noticed the doctor’s physical “decline in competence,” the report said, noting that he couldn’t perform certain operations “due to his (hand) tremor” and would sometimes mistakenly go into the wrong examination rooms.
When staff raised concerns about the physician’s decline, Romney and Bauer supported them and tried for months to bring the issue to FMG’s senior management, the report said.
The two doctors were fired on May 19, 2013, “without cause,” the arbitrator’s ruling said, though it mentions management admitted the terminations were related to how the doctors handled the situation with the impaired physician.
In June 2013, Romney and Bauer, seeking to represent other CHI employees, filed a class-action lawsuit in Washington state court, bringing claims for wrongful termination and withholding wages.
The decision on their case came after a 15-day hearing in Seattle, when the judge ruled that Romney’s and Bauer’s employers had wrongfully discharged them in violation of Washington public policy and “for reporting and assisting others to report what they and other employees saw as the impairment of a physician,” the statement said.
“The terminations effectively silenced the other medical providers and the patient harm continued,” the statement said. “Even after Dr. Romney and Dr. Bauer filed complaints with the Washington Department of Health and a formal investigation ensued, FMG took actions to protect itself and the same impaired physician continued to practice in an unsafe way.”
Several witnesses spoke about Romney’s and Bauer’s respected reputations in the community, the statement said.
“(Health care) providers who sound the alarm to protect public health and patient safety must be heard and protected, especially amid this national crisis and Covid-19 pandemic. It is a matter of life and death,” said Scott Blankenship, who represented the doctors, in the statement.