(EAST FLATBUSH) -Bad lab work at a Brooklyn hospital caused numerous patients to be told they had HIV when they didn’t and that they had tested negative for hepatitis C when they really did have it, a new lawsuit charges.
Kings County Hospital Center supervisors covered for lab workers who botched HIV and hepatitis C test paperwork, longtime employee Lili Hutchison claims in the lawsuit. She is suing the East Flatbush hospital, accusing her bosses and administrators of making her work life miserable after she blew the whistle on routine and potentially deadly foul-ups in the hospital’s pathology lab.
“We believe that, because Lili has spoken out about matters impacting the health and safety of the public, that she has been subjected to a steady stream of retaliation and harassment,” her lawyer, Thomas A. Ricotta, told DNAinfo New York. “We intend to pursue all of her rights and remedies to the fullest extent permissible under the law, as no hospital or health care provider should take action to punish employees who seek to protect the public. “
Hutchison, 51, who still works at the hospital as a lab associate, said the retaliation began in 2002, when she complained to the inspector general for the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation about the egregious errors.
At the time, she told the inspector general’s office that the hospital hired incompetent and unqualified lab staff, leading to compromises on patient safety, the lawsuit says. Patients were given incorrect test results, she said. Her boss, pathology lab administrator Sajjad Ahmed, covered up the flubs and endangered the welfare of the patients, Hutchison said.
The misdiagnoses and mix-up of samples prevented patients from receiving timely care, according to the lawsuit filed Nov. 4 in Brooklyn Civil Supreme Court. During the next three years, she continued to press the issue with the inspector general’s office and alerted the hospital’s executive director, Jean Leon, and the deputy executive director, George Proctor, to the lousy lab work, the lawsuit says.
Throughout that time, her supervisors and co-workers disparaged her and one threatened her with physical assault because of the whistle-blowing, according to the lawsuit. Eventually, her supervisors transferred her to the hematology lab, where her career apparently stalled. Despite having 17 years experience and all the right certifications, in 2007 she was denied a promotion to the higher-paying title of lab technician, the lawsuit says.
Her warnings also didn’t lead to changes, according to the lawsuit. In 2008, an investigator from the inspector general’s office told her he had interviewed witnesses and found her allegations to have merit, but no action was taken, the lawsuit says. However, in 2011, after Hutchison alerted the state Department of Health, an investigation substantiated her claims, according to the lawsuit.
The Health Department, which oversees the state’s hospitals, slapped Kings County with violations for patient safety and quality assurance standards based on its lab’s practices, the lawsuit says. All the while, Hutchison said her direct bosses retaliated by giving her lousy evaluations and brought her up on two department charges of yelling at a colleague and disrespecting another.
Hutchison said she notified the state Health Department, the College of American Pathologists and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations of more glaring mistakes, including a patient’s death due to a failure to report blood-level changes. Those complaints led to further violations against the hospital, according to the lawsuit.
In retaliation, Hutchison’s bosses socked her with a third work violation and she was suspended for two days without pay, she said. She sued the hospital out of fear she would be treated even worse.
“In light of the prior history surrounding Lili’s whistle-blower complaints, Lili fears she will be further harassed, disciplined or ultimately terminated [as a] result,” the lawsuit says.
The city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation did not respond to a request for comment until after the story was published Friday morning.
In a statement late Friday afternoon, the HHC said multiple investigations by three oversight groups could not substantiate Hutchison’s allegations.
“The New York State Department of Health, the Joint Commission and the American College of Pathologists have examined the claims regarding inaccurate HIV and Hep C tests and found them to be unsubstantiated,” the statement said. “The people of Brooklyn can be confident that testing results at Kings County Hospital are accurate, and that the hospital’s laboratory complies with all relevant standards and protocols.”
The state Health Department did not respond to a request for comment.