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Former PeaceHealth nurses accuse hospital system of culture of retaliation against employees

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PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center. (Photo by Eric Stone/KRBD)

Former PeaceHealth nurses are accusing the Catholic nonprofit hospital operator of retaliating against its employees who complain about working conditions and patient safety.

Ketchikan’s hospital operator is expected to address a nurse’s complaint at a federal labor board hearing this summer.

Marian Weber is a traveling nurse who, until last August, worked at PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center, which serves southern Southeast Alaska.

Weber says she expressed concerns to her superiors about a critically ill COVID-19 patient not being placed in the ICU. And she says she pushed back when PeaceHealth suggested a nurse sit with a potentially infectious patient as an alternative.

“I voiced safety concerns related to patient and staff safety related to COVID-19 hazard,” Weber said in a phone interview this week.

She says a hospital executive told her, more or less, that if she didn’t like it, she could leave.

“I went through the chain of command, filed incident reports and subsequently was terminated,” she said.

She told her story to KRBD in September. Four days later, the head of the hospital told staff that the administrator who’d threatened Weber’s job had abruptly left.

Since then, Weber says she hasn’t had any trouble finding work elsewhere, picking up nursing contracts in Montana and Vermont.

PeaceHealth sent a written statement denying any wrongdoing.

Meanwhile, state and federal labor officials have been looking into Weber’s complaints.

Now, the National Labor Relations Board is asking an administrative law judge to order PeaceHealth to apologize to Weber and reimburse her for travel expenses and other costs incurred after Weber was fired and moved back to the Lower 48. A hearing is set for June 7.

It’s not the first time PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center has been scrutinized by federal labor officials for allegedly retaliating against its workforce. The hospital was accused of violating federal labor laws on retaliation four times in 2015, according to a federal database.

But Weber says the issue runs deeper.

“It’s not just happening in Ketchikan. Systemically, PeaceHealth has a history and a pattern of retaliation,” Weber said.

Weber points to the case of Dr. Ming Lin, an emergency room doctor who was relieved of duty after exposing what he described as inadequate COVID-19 safety procedures at PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington.

In a statement to NPR in 2020, PeaceHealth said Lin “chose to not use designated safety reporting channels, and his actions were disruptive, compromised collaboration in the midst of a crisis and contributed to the creation of fear and anxiety.”

He’s being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, whose lawyers have filed suit for wrongful termination. An ACLU spokesperson says the case is ongoing.

And then there’s Sarah Collins. She worked for PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, Washington near Portland, Oregon.

“I’ve worked in many other hospitals, many other facilities. I’ve never run into this type of — it’s corruption. That’s the only way I can put it, is just corruption that seems to come from the top down,” Collins told KRBD this week.

She says she first ran into workplace issues in 2018.

“I was told that I was not promoted because I was claiming my missed breaks,” she said.

Then, last year, she says her union asked her to speak with a local news station about burnout among nurses. She says she cleared the interview with her hospital’s chief nursing officer.

“I was not derogatory towards PeaceHealth in that. I spoke to national nursing issues — as in, this is a national problem, not just a problem at PeaceHealth,” Collins said. “Right after that interview was when they called me and told me that I was going to be put on administrative leave.”

She was later fired. Collins has also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

Collins says she’s speaking out because she wants to see real change within the PeaceHealth organization. She’s calling for an internal investigation into labor practices at the hospital system similar to one conducted by Oregon Health and Science University.

“I just want to stand up and say: Look, this isn’t right. You need to stop. You need to analyze your practices, because it just is not right. It definitely doesn’t fit with your mission,” she said.

The nonprofit’s mission is listed online as “carry(ing) on the healing mission of Jesus Christ by promoting personal and community health, relieving pain and suffering, and treating each person in a loving and caring way.”

“It’s very hypocritical,” Collins said.

A spokesperson for PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center, Kate Govaars, said in a statement that the hospital can’t comment on personnel. But the spokesperson says patient and caregiver safety remains the nonprofit hospital’s top priority. She says care protocols at Ketchikan’s hospital align with state and federal guidelines. She says the hospital is confident in its care decisions and will respond appropriately to the NLRB to resolve the matter.

The PeaceHealth spokesperson added that the hospital has processes in place that allow caregivers to confidentially raise opportunities to ensure safer care.

“This approach is part of our commitment to continuously improve and vision to ensure 100% safe care. When conflicting perspectives arise, we bring both evidence and compassion to the discussion with the aim to resolve on the basis of respect and in the best interests of the patients we serve,” Govaars said

PeaceHealth and its predecessor, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, have operated Ketchikan’s city-owned hospital since it opened in the 1960s. Last year, the City Council renewed its contract for at least another two decades. As part of the new agreement, the city’s new Healthcare Advisory Committee has some oversight over the nonprofit’s operations of the 25-bed hospital.

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