Former Salem Health Official Claims Retaliation

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A former assistant medical director for Salem Health is suing the system, saying hospital management retaliated against him for pursuing nurses’ concerns of potentially fraudulent billing practices.

The suit was filed by Dr. Jefferson Loa, a hospitalist, in U.S. District Court in Eugene. It notes that he worked for the health system since 2016, most of that time holding the post of assistant medical director. He worked primarily at West Valley Hospital in Dalles. He garnered glowing reviews, according to the suit, until he began following up on concerns shared with him by nurses that some doctors were neglecting patient care —allegedly even billing for full checkups and procedures that were never conducted.

A spokesperson for the health system declined to comment directly on the suit, but supplied a statement: “Patients continue to report experiencing the highest in quality and compassionate care at Salem Health. It is our priority to protect this culture of excellence and healing. To that end, every concern about patient care or ethical concerns is thoroughly investigated and, when necessary, changes are made. Every decision, including staffing decisions, are based on the fundamental priority of patient safety.”

The suit comes as Salem Health has been in the news as its hospital in Salem announced plans to divert ambulances due to capacity issues. Also, the system investigated one of its own emergency department technicians for allegedly posting a video online that appeared to mock a patient’s cries of pain, as reported by the Salem Reporter.

According to the health system, that technician no longer works for Salem Health.

Acccrding to the lawsuit, “Dr. Loa was highly regarded by his colleagues and patients alike. He received numerous accolades, including being nominated for the Star award for exemplary service above and beyond his standard job duties. He regularly received highly positive reviews and was recognized for his ability to foster positive relations with his colleagues.”

It quoted from several reviews, including a June 11, 2020 one that praised Loa’s relationships and saying he “approaches process issues constructively.” It said Dr. Loa “is a valuable leader for the organization who will continue to positively influence the organization with continued leadership mentoring.” The reviewer again reported that Dr. Loa had no areas that needed improvement.

However, according to the suit, Loa was told that “one or more of Salem Health’s physicians were engaged in a practice known amongst the nursing staff as “fly-by rounding,” where the physicians would barely look in on a patient during their round, but then chart and bill for a complete checkup and procedures that were never conducted.”

He also learned that at least one doctor was not responding to nurses’ pages alerting them to needed patient care, and that “certain physicians were required to be on duty for extended hours, sometimes with shifts as long as 24-48 hours.”

Loa, according to the suit, reported the allegations to Salem Health’s medical director and, later, to its corporate integrity unit.

According to the suit, he began facing reprisal. “He was excluded from major decisions that he would ordinarily have been involved in as the Associate Medical Director. He was also removed from answering Patient Safety Alerts where he reviewed the circumstances surrounding negative patient outcomes and, if necessary, designating those cases for further peer review.”

“Dr. Loa also found himself excluded from regular management meetings that he had previously been involved in. His colleagues became noticeably cool and distant from him, leaving when he entered a room and excluding him from social events that he had previously participated in.”

In a document submitted to the state Bureau of Labor and Industries regarding Loa’s allegations, a lawyer for Salem Health claimed Loa’s coworkers lost confidence in him after he shared confidential patient care information from the patient safety alerts with his wife, who also worked at the hospital as a doctor, and other individuals. That, according to the hospital, is why patient safety alerts were no longer shared with him.

The suit said Loa grew concerned that some of his colleagues were engaged in weight-loss regimens that centered on going long periods without eating. In September 2020, he expressed skepticism to some colleagues, and faced a complaint that he was showing prejudice toward some of his Muslim colleagues who fasted for Ramadan.

“Dr. Loa believed that their complaints were a pretext” to strike back at him, according to the suit. He apologized. But in January 2021 he was demoted over the incident.

In April 2021, citing a lack of response from management, he brought the concerns of fraudulent billing to federal investigators in the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General.

On February, 22, 2022, Salem Health fired him, without providing a reason, according to the suit.

The suit requests more than $2 million in lost pay and damages.

You can reach Nick Budnick at [email protected] or at @NickBudnick on Twitter.

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