Whistleblowers allege penalties

Current and former staff of River Bluff Nursing Home describe an atmosphere where revealing wrongdoing and poor work performance results in punishment.

Phyllis Schwebke, River Bluff administrator, said, “I can’t tell you that I’ve ever known of that happening.”

An April 25, 2002, Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) review of the nursing home revealed that the home had five health deficiencies (the national average is seven, the state average is six), with a level of harm rate of two on a scale of four, including that the home failed to, “1) Hire only people who have no legal history of abusing, neglecting or mistreating residents; or 2) Report and investigate any acts or reports of abuse, neglect, or mistreatment of residents.”

River Bluff Nursing Home is the county’s 304-bed facility on North Main Street. The home cares for about 260 patients, 98 percent of whom receive Public Aid, and employs about 330 workers. The third part of this series examining River Bluff Nursing Home, its management and its finances examines what current and former staff have said is an atmosphere where employees are punished for reporting wrongdoing.

Doug Albright, whose wife, Robin, had worked at River Bluff for 16 years as a registered nurse (RN) and unit coordinator before being fired, said, “The people that report wrongdoing are the ones that were penalized.”

Robin Albright said: “They single out certain people. I was there for 16 years … I had every intention of staying.”

Robin Albright had taken a leave of absence under what she claimed fell under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows people to take up to 12 weeks off and still be able to return to their same or equivalent job for at least one month. When she returned to work Nov. 28, 2002, with three doctors’ notices recommending she was ready to return to work, Robin Albright was fired. The Albrights appealed to the U.S. Department of Labor, which recommended that she be reinstated.

In an interview Jan. 3, before she was fired the second time in mid-January, Robin Albright said: “I’m technically employed without a paycheck and no hours. They don’t know what to do with me.”

Winnebago County Assistant State’s Attorney Chuck Prorok, who has been involved with the Albrights’ case from the beginning, said: “As in most instances, I’m sure there are two sides to the story. Unfortunately, we’re in the position where because of the privacy issues involved in this, we can’t discuss our side of it. On the information known to the county, all employment decisions regarding Ms. Albright were appropriate and right,” including her original termination Nov. 28, 2002.

Robin Albright believes she was fired because she was aware of at least one doctor she believed was committing Medicare fraud. As she said, “He’s not seeing these patients, he’s arrogant about it, and he doesn’t care who witnesses it.” At least one other current or former employee confirmed Albright’s assertion.

With regard to Medicare fraud, Schwebke said: “I don’t have any knowledge of anything like that happening. I don’t have any knowledge to substantiate that claim. Certainly there are avenues for individuals to take if they have that knowledge.”

However, Schwebke said: “Medicare fraud is a big issue for everybody certainly. And we have limited ability to monitor other providers of anything in our facility.”

Schwebke said the nursing home has received complaints about, “a number of physicians who practice in our facility,” but has received no complaints regarding Medicare fraud. Many of the physicians who visit patients in the home are independent of the home, Schwebke said.

“I think it’s a problem in health care in general,” Schwebke said. “It’s not unique to River Bluff. They don’t spend enough time with their patients, they’re always in a hurry, they don’t call back quick enough, they’re flippant when they talk to the nurses, you know a lot of different complaints about our physicians. That happens all the time.”

In addition to Robin Albright, other former employees of River Bluff also said they believed they were also punished for exposing wrongdoing or being vocal employees.

Janice Shelton, a part-time certified nursing assistant (CNA) at River Bluff and a full-time licensed practical nurse (LPN) at P.A. Peterson Center for Health, had worked at River Bluff for about nine years as a CNA before applying for an LPN position. Shelton said she believes she wasn’t promoted to an LPN position after receiving the proper certification at least in part because she was a vocal union steward. She said when she approached management at River Bluff about an LPN position, she was told there were no openings. She learned shortly thereafter that there were openings; then she approached management again and said she was told it wouldn’t be fair for her to apply for those positions because other people had already applied. Shelton said others were hired in front of her for LPN positions who didn’t have any previous experience. She said she then went to Schwebke and told her, “this is where I want to be.”

“I did everything but get on the floor and grab her leg and ask her to give me a job,” Shelton said. “It’s beginning to be embarrassing to go in there as a CNA when I’m an LPN.”

Other former staff members agreed Shelton wasn’t given an LPN position at least partly because she was a vocal union steward.

Jill Lund, food service director at P.A. Peterson Center for Health and former food service director at River Bluff, said: “One thing you notice is that Janice does the job she’s supposed to as a union steward, and the others sort of cower down to what the management says. And that’s why she was not hired as an LPN because she would report on the wrongdoing.”

Lund said she felt pressure to resign for similar reasons after working at River Bluff for five years.

“I wasn’t terminated out there, but I was very much persuaded, and I know that if I hadn’t left when I did, I would have been terminated,” Lund said. Lund said she was told she had a very negative attitude and was accused of throwing dishes at employees, which she denies.

Lund said she remembered when Winnebago County Board Member Pete MacKay (R-5) visited River Bluff during his campaign for board chairman. “We were told that he was going out there and that he ‘could stir stuff up and to just keep your eyes and ears open’,” Lund said. “And they [management] were kind of laughing about it.”

Karen Martinez, who was an LPN at River Bluff for 15 years before being fired, claims she was fired because she had been counting prescription medication as advised by management and had found some to be missing.

“I think they just wanted to get rid of me,” Martinez said. “They told me that I could either quit, or they were going to fire me.”

Martinez said she remembered one time when she had gotten management approval to be late to work. She said when she arrived at work that day, an aide ran up to her and told her that a patient had fallen on the patio and suffered a cut and was bleeding profusely. Yet, Martinez said, the staff had been waiting for her to arrive and, when she did, she was written up for not taking care of the incident. She said she was frustrated because she had permission to be late and was still reprimanded.

Schwebke said there has been one substantiated claim of an employee stealing drugs during her time as administrator.

“It’s something that every nurse has not only the opportunity but the obligation to be monitoring the consumption of controlled substances,” Schwebke said. “If they are noticing deviations in their count, the nurses are the only people who are in an effective position to watch for that.”

Current and former staff said they were also aware of other staff who were smoking cigarettes in patients’ rooms, using drugs or alcohol on the job, and avoiding and mishandling patients.

“If those things are happening, obviously they’re not going to do that under my nose,” Schwebke said. “So if someone suspects that or sees that, one way to correct that is to come to me.”

In Nov. 1998, River Bluff paid a $9,555 fine to state and federal agencies for a mistake that led to the death of a resident.

As far as drug and alcohol use are concerned, Schwebke said: “Winnebago County and we do not have random drug testing. We do pre-employment drug testing. I think that’s had a positive impact of weeding out the folks who had a potential to be a problem. Our policy is typical of most workplaces that we’re looking for signs and symptoms of people who may be under the influence of anything they shouldn’t be. It’s a mandatory drug-testing policy if they appear to be under the influence, but they have to be showing signs of impairment in order to do that.”

Schwebke refused to comment on individual employees, citing employee confidentiality. Yet, she did say: “People change over time, circumstances in our lives change and every employer isn’t always a fit for you at every particular stage in your life.

“Sometimes people have worked in our facility and found it to be their home for life,” Schwebke said. “Sometimes people have worked in our facility and have found it to be a good fit for a while but sometimes what they need out of their job changes. Sometimes things outside their life … all of us have families and car payments and mortgages and things happen. And maybe what you’re doing today isn’t really the best fit with all of that.

“Their talents are going to be better utilized in some other work environment,” Schwebke continued. “It doesn’t make them bad people, and it doesn’t necessarily make us a bad employer, but this would not be a fit for that moment. I don’t look at it as being our failure or theirs. It was just a time for change, for whatever reason. And there have been people who have decided on their own to make that change. And so I think you have some of that in this situation.”

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