WASHINGTON, July 25, 2017 – A suburban Chicago Veteran Administration hospital has retaliated against an employee who reported unsafe drug handling to the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Heather Camren is a pharmacist at the Hines VA Medical Center and she’s sharing her story exclusively with CDN.
Within the last two years, the Hines VA determined that a drug named Avastin needed to be handled more safely, specifically with technicians wearing with goggles and a hood. But when the hospital inquired, they were told that the whole room would need to be converted making it cost prohibitive.
Avastin, an eye cancer drug, is an “antineoplastic agent,” according to Camren, and dangerous to pregnant women if prepared improperly.
When the hospital refused to do anything else to prepare it more safely, the pharmacists complained. Camren said she went up the chain of command, as prescribed, looking for relief.
She even proposed a solution which was simple and would cost nothing, handle Avastin in another room in the hospital where they have the required mask and hood available.
But the hospital responded citing an October 2011 note from something called the PBM (Pharmacy Benefits Management) National Bulletin. According to Camren:
“The new procedure states that the Eye Clinic Ophthalmologist would be preparing the Avastin. Not in a hood but on a countertop and the only PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) would be either sterile gloves or nitrile gloves.”
The PBM bulletin is an internal VA guide for pharmacists, but even the PBM itself notes it’s a guide, warning against outdated material:
“Alerts are based on the clinical evidence available at the time of publication. Recommendations are intended to assist practitioners in providing consistent, safe, high quality, and cost effective drug therapy. They are not intended to interfere with clinical judgment. When using dated material, the clinician should consider new clinical information, as available and applicable.”
“I contacted Genentech (the manufacturer of Avastin) to see what the appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) should be.” Camren said of what she did next. “Based on their response and their Safety Data Sheet for Avastin the appropriate PPE would be to prepare the Avastin in a properly working/ventilated hood or while using a respirator, safety glasses, and neoprene, nitrile or butyl rubber gloves.
“I contacted OSHA to let them know about the new procedure for preparing Avastin for the Eye Clinic and voiced my concerns. OSHA then informed that hospital that the information that they provided to OSHA (on April 27th) was not adequate to close the case. The case was then escalated to the Hospital Director.”
Once OSHA got involved, the regulator kept citing the hospital.
“On Tuesday May 2, 2017, the safety office received notification that the Edward Hines Jr. letter 578/001S of April 27, 2017, did not provide adequate enough information to close the notice of alleged safety and health hazards at the worksite,” in a letter from the VA to OSHA.
Camren then filed paperwork with the Office of Special Counsel, which deals with whistleblowers throughout the government, on May 5, 2017; by doing so, she was supposed to receive added layers of protection from retaliation. Instead, the retaliation started soon after.
Shortly thereafter, Camren was an investigated for alleged workplace harassment, a charge similar to what the Memphis VA did to Sean Higgins.
Germaine Clarno is the local union President of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and a frequent hospital whistleblower; she blew the whistle on that hospital’s secret waitlist, among a series of disclosures- most recently, she helped bring to light unsanitary conditions in the hospital’s kitchen.
The kitchen had mice, a hole in the wall, a cockroach infestation and regularly expired food according to photos.
She’s not surprised that the charges against Higgins and Camren are so similar because she believes there is an unwritten sort of textbook for whistleblower retaliation in the VA.
Whistleblowers are often tarred with the label of disruptive or harassing, Clarno stated.
Most recently, the hospital has proposed suspending Camren for fourteen days- the hospital sent a proposal to Clarno on July 14, 2017.
This case, especially when viewed along with the Higgins case, suggest the new VA bill which was passed to add protections for whistleblowers has been largely feckless.
Clarno said she’s seen no new help for VA whistleblowers since its passage.
The bill created a new office to handle whistleblower complaints but no staff has been hired yet, Clarno stated.
Rich Fox, public affairs officer for the Hines VA, declined comment citing internal personnel issues.