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Mercy Health says nurse was fired for violating privacy of multiple patients not for talking to the media

The dispute between a fired Hackley Hospital RN, the Michigan Nurses Association, and Mercy Health continues to unfold.
Credit: 13 On Your Side

MUSKEGON, Mich. — Mercy Health is responding to claims made by a fired RN that his termination was retaliation from the hospital after he raised safety concerns with local media.

The dispute between a fired Hackley Hospital RN, the Michigan Nurses Association and Mercy Health continues to unfold with the latest response coming from the hospital. Mercy Health says former nurse Justin Howe was fired after violating the privacy of multiple patients.

The response from the hospital comes one day after a press release from the Michigan Nurses Association accused Mercy Health of violating federal labor law by firing Howe from his position at the Muskegon hospital. The union says it filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

Howe told 13 On Your Side he believed the termination was because he spoke out about safety concerns at the hospital in late March. Howe says ten days later hospital leaders accused him of a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) violation and he was fired.

"They are false allegations," Howe said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Mercy Health responded with its own press release on the firing, claiming under normal circumstances it does not share details related to individual employment matters but given the "misinformation campaign" led by the Michigan Nurses Association Labor Union the hospital was compelled to comment.   

Mercy Health claims Howe and other staff were terminated for inappropriately accessing privileged information. 

Mercy Health specifically accuses Howe of violating the privacy of multiple patients over a period of days by entering into their electronic medical chart. Mercy Health claims the patients were not being treated at the hospital campus where Howe worked.

The following are the full press releases from both parties:

- Mercy Health press release 4/22/2020

Mercy Health does not share details related to individual employment matters under normal circumstances.  However, given the public interest and misinformation campaign led by the Michigan Nurses Association Labor Union we are compelled to comment.   

Former Mercy Health Nurse Justin Howe's allegation that he was terminated for raising safety concerns is emphatically false.  Mr. Howe was terminated from Mercy Health for violating the privacy of multiple patients over a period of days by entering into their electronic medical chart without a need to do so.  It's notable that the patient records that Mr. Howe inappropriately accessed were all treated at a different hospital campus than where Mr. Howe works.  

Health care providers monitor and report inappropriate medical records access in accordance with The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) which is a federal law that required the creation of national standards to protect sensitive patient health information from being disclosed without the patient's consent or knowledge. We have mechanisms in place to monitor for inappropriate access of privileged information. As part of this review process, Mr. Howe along with others were terminated for the same. This investigative effort is still in process.  Health care employees including our own receive training on HIPAA standards and guidelines across the country.  Health care employees across the country, in every health care environment, are trained to know that they must not access a patient record without a business reason to do so.  

 Mr. Howe, together with the Michigan Nurses Association, are well aware of the facts that led to Mr. Howe's termination as an MNA representative was included in the investigation and termination process wherein Mr. Howe was confronted with the evidence of his own acts.  We find it regrettable that Mr. Howe inappropriately accessed these records, as he breached our policy, HIPAA guidelines, and the trust we have with our patient and colleagues.  We're also incredibly disappointed that the Michigan Nurses Association, a labor union that purports to advocate for nursing best practices, has chosen to advance this false story in order to promote itself in the media. 

- Michigan Nurses Association 4/21/2020 

Muskegon, MI – Shortly after doing multiple media interviews raising concerns about the hospital’s preparedness and the safety of RNs and health care professionals, local nurses’ union president Justin Howe, RN, was terminated from his position as a nurse at Mercy Health Partners’ Hackley Hospital. Mercy Health Partners is part of Trinity Health. The Michigan Nurses Association believes that Howe’s termination is a violation of federal labor law and has filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

Howe’s termination came on the evening of April 3, days after he had publicly raised concerns about lack of appropriate PPE and the need for improved screening measures to keep nurses and healthcare workers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. The same night, a few hours after terminating Howe, the hospital sent over a new policy to furlough workers.

“I really cannot think of anything more disgusting than a hospital firing a dedicated nurse like Justin in the height of a pandemic just because he was willing to speak out and hold them accountable,” said Jen Parks, BSN, RN, a Hackley nurse and the current acting president of the Hackley RN Staff Council, an affiliate of the Michigan Nurses Association. “I didn’t want to believe they would ever sink this low.”

“By firing Justin, Trinity’s executives are trying to send a message to all of us to shut up and get in line,” said Hasan Zahdeh, a tech at Hackley Hospital and president of the Michigan Union for Healthcare Workers. “Our hospital is run by people who don’t know what it’s like on the front lines. They don’t want to be accountable to the public and would prefer to try to scare workers than listen to our concerns.”

“I followed my conscience by advocating publicly for nurses and patients, and I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Howe said. “Losing my job is devastating, but the consequences of not speaking out would be even worse. Lives are on the line.”

Howe is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and has been a nurse for nearly 7 years. He became engaged to his fiancée, a fellow union nurse at Hackley, earlier this year.

The stated reason for Howe’s termination was a violation of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). After repeated requests from the Michigan Nurses Association in the two and a half weeks following Howe’s termination, the hospital’s administration has still not yet provided full documentation to support their claim. From what they have shown, their case appears to hinge on a new software program that nurses have been raising concerns about dating back to January. A few days following Howe’s termination for an alleged HIPAA violation, another MNA member who was on the union’s safety committee was also fired for the same stated reason. Both RNs have no previous disciplinary incidents listed on their current records.

Prior to Howe raising safety concerns publicly about the hospital’s response to COVID-19, the Michigan Nurses Association has no record of any termination of a nurse for an alleged HIPAA violation for at least the last three years.

Hackley Hospital recently began working with “labor consultants” with anti-union records. One of the consultants, Matt Patterson, has in the past reportedly compared organized labor to “an infection born by an invading union force.” (1)

Normally, because union members have just cause protections, a case like this would be brought before a neutral third-party arbitrator who would make a ruling. Nurses say they are confident that if the case were to be brought before an arbitrator, Howe would be reinstated. Due to the pandemic, arbitrations are currently delayed and a quick resolution under the normal time frame is considerably unlikely.

 Nurses have worn “No Retaliation” stickers to protest Howe’s termination. “We all know that Justin is a dedicated nurse and strong advocate for our patients and profession. If they think that we are going to take this lying down, they have another thing coming,” said Parks. “We will do whatever it takes to make sure that we get justice. We will not back down.”

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