Whistleblower case sparks battle: OSC vs Army

Whistleblowers can be the most annoying people — self-styled Jeremiahs that drive supervisors crazy. But if they’re right, they’re right. And bosses have to deal with what they say.

Teresa Gilbert is apparently such a case. She was a civilian infection control analyst at the Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Starting in 2014, the GS-8 found filth all over the place. Cystoscopes with biological crud on them sent in for use during surgery. Dirty ophthalmoscopes.  Unsterile laryngoscope blades. Even breast milk stored at uncertain temperatures. If it went into a patient’s eyes, mouth or urinary tract, it was likely crawling with infectious germs.

At one point, the Army Surgeon General considered shutting down the place. The Army Medical Command did suspend elective surgery there for a few days. When contacted by Gilbert,  the Joint Commission moved an inspection of WAMC up by two months. It warned Army officials it had found life-threatening conditions. The Army eventually reprimanded four WAMC staff leaders. They’d done everything but seek help and clean up the place.

So Gilbert was right to blow the whistle. According to the Office of Special Counsel, she called or e-mailed anyone who would listen. Among her complaints was the lack of infection control qualifications of her appointed supervisor.

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You know where this is heading.

The retaliation dragged on for two years. Gilbert was cut out of meetings. Denied access to patients. Had her hours cut, and then they blamed her for not filing leave requests. Her bosses ginned up HIPPA violation charges against her. Finally, in mid-2017, OSC found the Army supervisor, whose name is redacted, had committed prohibited personnel practices. Gilbert had been drummed out, but the Army settled with her. So she received some justice.

Reading the full OSC report, you could conclude Gilbert was an irritating employee. She appears driven by the poor conditions at the hospital and impatient to have them fixed. Her supervisor might have concluded that she, the supervisor, didn’t have the proper chance to respond before Gilbert starting sending e-mails all over the place — including to the Joint Commission.

That’s one of the challenges in supervising people. It’s not easy, but you’ve got to separate the issue from personal feelings. No doubt, that’s especially difficult when a subordinate openly questions your qualifications.

It’s also likely the supervisor didn’t have the authority to order a stand down to clean up the hospital. I remember when, in the early 1980s, high Japanese product quality gave rise to the notion of quality circles. In Japanese factories, it was said, anyone witnessing a process going out of established norms could literally blow a whistle. That would stop the production line until the condition was adjusted. That’s easier to do if you’re turning out motorcycle engines than in a busy hospital. A key principle in Japanese quality control was, no retaliation against whistleblowers.

Still, the same quality principle applies. The Japanese learned early that it’s far, far less expensive to build a car right in the first place than to do all of this expensive after-sale rework. For a hospital, it’s got to be more efficient to calibrate the autoclaves than to treat people for nasty infections.

This morning an OSC press release “expressed disappointment” that the Army disagrees. Because the supervisor is a uniformed military member, OSC’s legal options are limited. It can’t order disciplinary action in such a case. Special Counsel Henry Kerner urges the Army to reconsider.

The Army did many things right. It came down hard on the hospital, one of its largest. But it seems to have fallen short in dealing with a whistleblower retaliation.