Vermont, spurred on by a well-publicized construction scandal at Fletcher Allen Health Care, may be ready to join a handful of other states in passing legislation meant to protect hospital workers who report perceived wrongdoings at their facilities.
Earlier this month, the state Senate passed a bill offering such protection, sending the matter to the House, where the future of the bill is unclear. If the House passes it and the bill is signed by Gov. James Douglas, a Republican, Vermont would join about a dozen other states that have similar laws on the books.
Messages and e-mails left with several legislators, among them Sen. Virginia Lyons, the Democratic sponsor of the Senate bill, were not returned.
"This is a good first step for Vermont," said Marc Raspanti, a lawyer at Miller, Alfano & Raspanti in Philadelphia, who specializes in whistleblower cases. Unlike other states with whistleblower protection legislation, however, Vermont's bill would protect only hospital employees. Other healthcare workers, such as those in nursing homes, would not be covered.
But even those states with legislation covering all healthcare workers are limited because they do not offer protection to nonemployees such as contract workers and subcontractors, Raspanti said.
Vermont's bill is designed to protect hospital employees from retaliatory action by the hospitals if they report problems. It also would protect them if they provide information during an investigation into a facility; testify during the investigation; or refuse to take part in activities they believe are dangerous or illegal.
The Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems vehemently opposes the bill.
"All of our hospitals have nonretaliatory policies as part of their compliance plans ... and (the bill) creates a more adversarial culture at the workplace, which is something we want to move away from," said Beatrice Grause, president and chief executive officer of the association.
In addition to state laws, federal laws also protect whistleblowers, but they apply only to alleged wrongdoing involving federal funding. State whistleblower protection statutes cover alleged criminal actions involving state money.
The bill stems from a scandal involving Fletcher Allen's expansion project, called the Renaissance Project. In 2000, the state approved the project when the cost was pegged at $173.4 million. But questions about $300,000 in proceeds from a $150 million tax-exempt bond sale used to fund a $55 million private parking garage-in violation of bond-financing agreements-led to state and federal investigations. As a result, CEO William Boettcher, Chief Operating Officer Thad Krupka, David Demers, senior vice president of business development, and half of the hospital's board of trustees eventually resigned.
Fletcher Allen, in Burlington, is Vermont's largest hospital, with 529 beds.