An anesthesiologist is suing Kaiser Permanente for $9 million, claiming that he was fired for complaining when told to reduce patient medications so they could be discharged sooner.
Erik Franck, MD, is suing Kaiser in Multnomah County Circuit Court, alleging whistleblower retaliation after he resisted what he says were systematic attempts to save money at the expense of patient safety and comfort. He provided anesthesia services at several Kaiser clinics and surgery centers in the Portland, OR, area.
Claims of Threats to Patient Safety
Franck says the trouble began in 2013 when Kaiser began decreasing staff levels at one surgery center and he complained about the threat to patient safety. He advised his superiors at Kaiser that it was not safe to supervise pediatric cases at a ratio of less than 1:2, especially with only one anesthesiologist on site, the lawsuit claims. Kaiser also adopted a policy, he alleges, that required anesthesiologists and staff to complete pre-op preparations and evaluations of surgical patients and have patients in the operating rooms so that surgery began promptly at 7:30 a.m. “If patients had complicated medical issues which required time-consuming pre-surgical evaluations or if the patients had questions or concerns and requested further consultation, the anesthesiologists were encouraged to prioritize getting the patients to the operating rooms by 7:30 a.m. over patient safety and patient concerns,” the lawsuit says.
The Kaiser chief of anesthesia advised anesthesiologists and staff to “take the patient in with their street clothes on if you have to,” in order to make the 7:30 a.m. deadline, Franck claims. Kaiser continued to push for faster patient turnover by making other cuts and policy changes that concerned Franck, the lawsuit says. At one point, he says, anesthesiologists received an email saying, “Anesthesiologists are asked not to go into operating rooms during [cesarian sections] unless absolutely necessary,” an order that Franck said was dangerous.
Withholding Pain Medications
Franck cites a 2014 instruction from Kaiser that the anesthesia department was to return patients to the recovery room awake or easily awakened, made possible by decreasing pain medications. The instruction stated that “all providers will emphasize same message for the patients: You are going to have pain and nausea related to surgery and anesthesia.” Anti-anxiety medications were not to be prescribed unless absolutely necessary, Franck claims the order stated.
“As a result of these policies, Dr. Franck became increasingly concerned that his pediatric patients were having their IVs pulled too soon after arrival in the recovery room while they were still crying with pain,” the lawsuit says.
After repeated complaints about patient safety, Franck was told that his contract would not be renewed and his employment with Kaiser ended in August 2015.
Kaiser issued a statement saying it is committed to the highest standards of quality. “The claim is meritless and we are confident the facts will readily reflect that,” the statement says. Franck’s attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
Franck is not the first to accuse Kaiser of sacrificing patient safety for higher turnover. Oncologist Jennifer Lycette, MD, filed a $7 million lawsuit in 2014, alleging she was forced to quit after complaining about orders to rush patients through bone marrow biopsies before pain medications had taken effect. Four months later, Radhika Breaden, MD, sued for $9 million, alleging that she was pressured to quit because she complained that sleep-deprived patients were forced to drive long distances to access a sleep laboratory.
Both of those suits are still pending. The Franck complaint is available online at: http://bit.ly/2dNSq7X.