Did medical bills lead to firing?

Phillis Dewitt new here husband Tony was not going to win his battle with prostate cancer.  The hospital where she worked new it too.

When Phillis was asked by her supervisor whether her husband was going to go into hospice, she was taken aback by the question. “He’s not ready to give up,” Dewitt said she responded.

Her supervisor again, raised the subject, a few months later.  Dewitt realized that the hospital was monitory her husbands’  medical bills.  “He still wants to fight,” she said feeling defensive.

Proctor Hospital terminated Dewitt several months later citing insubordination. She believes that they fire her because of her husband’s medical bills.  Dewitt had a spotless employment record.

Dewitt is now involved in a high-profile legal battle with Proctor Hospital.   Dewit is charging that she was terminated from her position as nurse manager, not because she was insubordinate,  but because of her husband’s medical expenses.  Last year, the 7th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago, reversed a lower court’s decision to dismiss the case. Trial is set for this year.

In August 2006, Tony Dewitt died from the cancer.

As employers become more economically distressed, experts believe that these types of conflicts will become more likely.  According to Paul Secuunda, an associate profession at Marquette University Law Schoo, “With the economic crisis and the health-care crisis,  individuals with employer provided health care are extremely vulnerable.”

Employers are free to fire workers or stop discontinue employee benefits to cut costs.   But an employer cannot discriminate against employees who suffer from disabling medical conditions.

More and more lawsuits alleging discrimination will probably become more commonplace in the year due to changes in the Americans With Disabilities Act. These changes took effect Jan 1.

Roy Davis, the attorney representing Pioctor Hospital defends their actions and says the lawsuit has no merit.  Davis says the hospital has several employees who suffer from costly health conditions.

Still the circumstances surrounding Dewitt’s termination from Pioctor Hospital are suspect.  The appellate court, unanimously decided that her supervisor seemed “very interested” in limiting Tony Dewitt’s medical claims.   The timing of her firing “suggests that the financial albatross of Anthony’s continued cancer treatment was an important factor in Proctor’s decision.”

When Dewitt’s supervisor asked her  in September of 2004, about her husband’s health and mentioned the high cost of treatment, she realized that the hospital was concerned about his medical expenses.  According to Dewitt’s account, her supervised asked, “Have you thought about hospice?”

Dewitt replied that her and her husband had discussed hospice with the doctor and the doctor did not feel he was ready for hospice.  According to Dewitt, in February 2005,  her boss made another reference to her about hospice care and mentioned the high cost of Tony’s treatment.

Hospice care of a terminally ill patient is end of life care when any aggressive treatment stops.  As long as Tony Dewitt was under active medical treatment and pursuing therapy, the hospital was resonsible for paying his medical bills.

Tony Dewitt’s cancer diagnosis was made in 1995. He had outlived his doctor’s projections.  However, he was getting worse.  The cost of his medical treatment in 2003 was $71,684 and in 2004 it increased to $177,286.

Mary Jane Davis, Dewitt’s supervisor, admitted that she did discuss hospice care with Dewitt on several occasions.  She stated that wanted to find out if Dewitt was “getting enough support.”   She insists that she was not pushing to have Tony Davis put into hospice care.

In August 2005, Dewitt was on a family vacation on Lake Shelby, about 2-1/2 hours away.  Her supervisor called and asked her  to come in  for a meeting on one of her vacation days and Dewitt refused.

According to Davis, during the phone call Dewitt threatened to resign and became agitated Dewitt says she was on a boat with her family and she had to raise her voice so that she could be heard over the loud sound of the boat’s motor and several noisy children.  Dewitt says she had not intention of giving up her job.  To do that she would mean no health insurance coverage.  Dewitt also denies lashing out at her supervisor.

Davis contacted Dewitt the next day and told her she had been terminated.  No other disciplinary actions were taken prior to her being fired, contrary to hospital procedure.

According to the hospital’s attorney, the phone conversation was cause for the Peoria Hospital to terminate Dewitt despite the fact that she had an impeccable employment record with the hospital.  “Mary Jane Davis lost confidence in [Dewitt’s] ability to carr out orders,” Davis said.

After she was terminated, Dewitt elected to continue to pay for the health insurance under COBRA, for 18 months.   Her cost monthly was $900.    Almost a year after she was fired, Dewitt’s husband passed away.

“To see a health-care institution act as they did, while my husband was dying, while I was trying to support him, that’s something I just can’t accept,” she said.