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COVID-19: New group stands up for health professionals facing retaliation


 

Sejal Hathi, MD, and two colleagues had long kicked around the idea of starting a nonprofit group that would center on civic and legal advocacy.

Dr. Sejal Hathi of Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston Courtesy Dr. Sejal Hathi

Dr. Sejal Hathi

Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the three friends – who have a mix of legal, medical, and advocacy backgrounds – began chatting by email and through Zoom video meetings about how to make the plan a reality.

“When COVID came around, we began talking about where we could make a difference and help people where help was needed most,” said Dr. Hathi, an internal medicine resident at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “We decided the PPE issue makes a good first focus.”

The new organization – named Beacon – quickly mobilized, assembled their team, and launched a website. Beacon’s first project now aims to highlight and protect the legal rights of medical professionals who speak out about personal protection equipment (PPE) supply and other matters of public concern related to coronavirus.

In recent months, health care professionals have reported being reprimanded or even terminated for publicly discussing PPE shortages or sharing safety concerns. Other clinicians say they can’t share their experiences for fear of reprisal by their hospitals.

John Paul Schnapper-Casteras, attorney and cofounder of Beacon Courtesy John Paul Schnapper-Casteras

John Paul Schnapper-Casteras

“The centrality of adequate PPE is pretty undeniable at this point,” said John Paul Schnapper-Casteras, JD, an attorney and cofounder of the organization. “In terms of speaking up about matters of workplace safety and public concern, when health care workers share knowledge, correct problems – and in some cases, blow the whistle – it affirmatively benefits medical science, disease control, and the public interest,” he said in an interview. “We have seen in other countries, the disastrous consequences that can stem from silencing medical professionals who try to speak out.”

Letter highlights hospitals’ obligations

As part of their efforts, Beacon leaders drafted a strongly worded letter on behalf of health care workers outlining the legal obligations of hospitals to ensure workplace safety, underscoring the federal protections that bar retaliation against employees who exercise their workplace rights. Whistleblower protections under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the False Claims Act, and the National Labor Relations Act, for instance, prohibit retaliation against employees for blowing the whistle on unsafe or unlawful conditions.

Beacon’s letter urges hospitals to adopt a uniform policy that recognizes “the importance and legitimacy of doctors, nurses, and medical professionals who research, write, and speak about the use and supply of PPE in addressing coronavirus.”

“We are deeply troubled by reports that medical professionals are being fired, retaliated against, disciplined, or threatened for speaking (or potentially speaking) about PPE shortages and related safety conditions that directly place their and their patients’ lives in danger,” the letter states. “As a matter of law, medical personnel have a wide range of rights that protect their employment status and ability to comment on matters of public concern (and provide a cause of action in court if these rights are violated).”

Dr. Hathi, who over the last decade has founded two social enterprises advancing women’s rights, said organizers have sent the letter to hospitals and health systems that were publicly reported or otherwise known to have threatened, terminated, or retaliated against employees for protesting PPE shortages or speaking up about unsafe working conditions during this crisis. The letter is available on the Beacon website.

“Many letters have been written [recently] criticizing hospitals for retaliating against their workers,” Dr. Hathi said. “Ours amplifies this voice. But it also serves as a tool for self-empowerment, a stark warning to health systems that their actions bear consequences, and an assurance to health workers across the country that we’re listening and we’re here to help them safeguard their rights and their dignity at work.”

Dr. Hathi and her colleagues have also circulated the letter on social media and other platforms as a petition that health care professionals and others can sign in support of fair and safe treatment of employees with respect to PPE. So far, the group has collected signatures from individuals, communities, and organizations representing about 35,000 people, Dr. Hathi said.

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