BRENTWOOD — A former 20-year employee at Portsmouth Regional Hospital has filed a lawsuit claiming she was fired in retaliation for making repeated complaints about an understaffing “crisis” in the emergency department, which she alleges resulted in the death of a patient.
Julie Stephens of Rochester is suing HCA Health Services of New Hampshire Inc., which operates Portsmouth Regional Hospital, for wrongful termination, malicious prosecution, and violation of the New Hampshire Whistleblowers’ Protection Act.
The hospital has denied she was wrongfully terminated and rejected her allegations of systematic understaffing.
Lawyers for the hospital have asked a Rockingham County Superior Court judge to dismiss the case.
In addition to the staffing claims, Stephens has also alleged that the firing came just days after she was falsely accused of trying to help a patient with mental health concerns who was being involuntarily committed to escape.
The hospital reported her to the New Hampshire Board of Nursing, which eventually dismissed the complaint.
In court paperwork, the hospital maintained that it conducted a “good faith investigation” of the incident and had probable cause to submit its complaint.
Hospital spokesman Lynn Robbins issued a statement Tuesday defending the firing and the hospital’s care.
“When there is an issue involving patient safety we will act quickly and decisively to protect our patients and we are very comfortable with the decision to terminate this individual. We are proud of the quality care we provide and we will defend ourselves against these allegations through the legal process,” the statement said.
According to the suit, Stephens worked in the nursing field until she was fired in February while employed as the clinical coordinator in the emergency department.
In the year before the firing, Stephens insists she pushed for more staffing.
Stephens claims she “persistently contacted” the emergency services director about the “ongoing short-staffing crisis,” but little was done and patients experienced treatment delays.
At one point, Stephens alleges she was told she would be terminated from her position if she continued to complain.
“The safety concerns of Ms. Stephens were tragically realized in October of 2018 when a patient came to the ED seeking help for heart-related symptoms. Rather than immediately being tested with an EKG and being transferred to the Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, the individual patiently waited more than a half-an-hour without proper assistance until she died. Upon information and belief, the understaffing issue at Portsmouth Hospital caused or contributed to the patient not receiving timely medical care,” said the suit filed through Manchester attorney Sean R. List.
The hospital denied her allegation that a staffing issue resulted in the patient’s death.
It also denied claims that the turnover rate among nurses increased after a new director of emergency services was hired in June 2018.
“Exacerbating the staffing shortage, Portsmouth Hospital put into place a custom and practice, if not formal policy, of accepting any and all transfer patients. This led to approximately six to eight transfer patients in the ED a night, in addition to the typical influx of regular emergency patients that frequently exceeded the 26 Emergency Department’s capacity, even without the transfer patients. It was not uncommon for the ED to service between 40 to 60 patients at a time during the night shift,” the suit said.
Stephens claims emergency patients that should have been placed in proper rooms were often put in the hallway to accommodate transfers and overflow.
“The nurse-to-patient ratio was so insufficient that Ms. Stephens and her colleagues rarely had the chance to take a lunch break,” the suit said.
Stephens claims she eventually sent a letter to Dean Carruci, the hospital’s chief executive officer, in October 2018 to share her concerns.
The hospital is represented by Michael G. Messerschmidt and Matthew J. LaMourie of Portland, Maine.