Doctor Fired for Reporting Misconduct, He Claims
LOS ANGELES (CN) - A Kaiser doctor reported a colleague’s dangerous prescribing, and got fired in retaliation, he claims in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Jay Espejo, M.D., M.P.H. sued Southern Permanente Medical Group, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals, Inc. for wrongful termination and whistleblower retaliation, and Chief of Family Medicine Joseph Huang, M.D. for whistleblower retaliation.
According to Dr. Espejo’s lawsuit, two of his patients were involved in likely drug-seeking behavior when they showed up at the Kaiser-West LA Urgent Care Clinic, where a particular doctor prescribed drugs they should not have received.
The first patient, in Dec. 2013, demanded a specific narcotic cough syrup for coughing and wheezing, according to Dr. Espejo’s complaint.
“This cough syrup is the basis for a recreational drug called ‘Purple Drank,’ a cocktail of promethazine and codeine cough syrup mixed with lemon-lime soft drink and, often, a hard, fruit-flavored candy. Purple Drank, also known as ‘sizzurp,’ among other street names, can be fatal, causing respiratory and cardiac arrest. This kind of narcotic cough syrup notoriously has been associated with drug abuse by certain hip-hop artists and professional athletes,” the complaint states.
The patient’s electronic medical record, viewable by all Kaiser medical staff, “revealed an active problem list of cocaine abuse, amphetamine abuse, hallucinogen abuse and cannabis abuse,” the complaint states. The examining physician, a non-party, determined the patient did not need a narcotic cough syrup and offered to refill the patient’s asthma medication, but the patient refused it and came back later to see another doctor, according to the complaint.
The second doctor, who is also not a party, stated in his notes that the patient was “adamant,” “loud,” and “confrontational,” and that he agreed the desired narcotic cough syrup was not medically necessary, but prescribed it “anyway just to appease the patient," according to the complaint.
About four months later, the complaint continues, another of Dr. Espejo’s patients showed up at the Kaiser-West LA Emergency Department complaining of abdominal pain. When the (non-party) doctor this patient saw prescribed an anti-cramping medication and Extra Strength Tylenol instead of a narcotic, the patient went to the Kaiser-West LA Urgent Care Clinic “consistent with drug-seeking behavior,” the complaint states. Urgent Care staff sent the patient to see Dr. Espejo, who sent the patient back to Urgent Care “in accordance with standard operating procedures,” the complaint states.
This time, the patient saw the same doctor who had prescribed the narcotic cough syrup to the previous patient, according to the complaint. “Despite speaking to the Emergency Department and reaffirming the likelihood of drug-seeking behavior,” the complaint says, the doctor prescribed a combination of Acetaminophen and Codeine, which the complaint states is a Schedule III controlled substance.
Dr. Espejo subsequently reported the prescribing doctor’s careless prescribing to the Physician In Charge of Urgent Care, the Urgent Care Department Administrator and the Assistant Chief of the Family Medicine Department, according to the complaint. “Rather than correct the behavior, however, defendants punished plaintiff,” it says.
Three weeks after Dr. Espejo learned he had been promoted to a partnership in Southern California Permanente Medical Group, “Family Medicine Department partners held a meeting in which plaintiff’s elevation to partner was revoked,” his complaint states.
Dr. Espejo attributes this action to the Chief of Family Medicine, Dr. Joseph Huang.
“Huang used his influence and authority to push through the revocation of plaintiff’s promotion to partner and thus plaintiff’s termination,” Dr. Espejo contends.
Jay Espejo seeks economic and non-economic damages (including physical, mental and emotional injuries and damage to his reputation), lost income, health care expenses, other consequential and incidental damages, punitive and exemplary damages, reinstatement, attorney fees, costs of suit and pre-judgment interest. He is represented by Matthew S. McNicholas and Alyssa K. Schabloski of McNicholas & McNicholas in Los Angeles.