Two former executives at St. Mary Medical Center are suing the hospital system, alleging they were ignored and ultimately pushed out of their jobs after raising concerns about the safety of patients.
Former Chief Nursing Officer Nancy Valla, who was responsible for setting nursing care standards throughout the hospital, alleges she repeatedly pointed out issues with dirty instruments. Her lawsuit, filed in August 2020, also alleges the hospital’s CEO downplayed her concerns about a suicide at the facility that Valla contends could have been prevented.
Michael Verbitski, who oversaw growth and expansion as the hospital’s senior director of business development and strategy, sued St. Mary earlier this month. According to his complaint, Verbitski continually alerted leadership to issues around understaffing, billing and non-clinical staff making contract decisions before he was forced out of his job in October 2021.
Valla and Verbitski both allege the hospital retaliated against them for their persistence in highlighting these issues. They are both represented by attorney Brennan Hershey, who said their allegations center around St. Mary “prioritizing profits over patient safety.”
In a statement, St. Mary spokesperson Christina Zicklin said that “patient and visitor safety has always been our highest priority.”
Verbitski worked for St. Mary from December 2018 to August 2021, according to his lawsuit, and on multiple occasions, he alleges, he alerted his superiors of the need for more staff, including a nursing assistant and an additional anesthesiologist in order to properly care for patients.
Verbitski also flagged persistent billing and collection issues such as double billing, inaccurate collection practices, withholding co-payments from physicians and delays in patient care due to an incorrect financial clearance process, according to his suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Verbitski alleges he brought his concerns to hospital leadership, including President and CEO Carolyn Caldwell and Chief Operating Officer Bonnie Panlasigui, but they were never addressed. Rather, his lawsuit says, his persistence resulted in a “forced exit,” including a warning to “go quietly” or not receive his annual bonus.
The hospital declined to comment on the specifics of Verbitski’s case.
Valla, who worked at St. Mary from April 2018 to May 2019, alleges the hospital had problems sterilizing some equipment, which caused delays in patient care.
The lawsuit also points to an incident in March 2019 when a woman died by suicide when she jumped from the hospital’s parking structure. Valla alleges that the woman was found with a “faint pulse” but no aid was rendered. Valla’s lawsuit says she urged hospital leadership to erect anti-suicide barriers on the parking structure, but they dismissed this idea as unrealistic.
Valla’s lawsuit says she went on leave because of depression and PTSD she suffered from the experience, and four months later, was informed her position at the hospital had been filled.
Zicklin, the hospital spokesperson, said St. Mary takes suicide prevention seriously.
“When these types of incidents happen, which unfortunately they have at structures all across the country, not just at our hospital, we are all deeply affected and will always work to save the life of the person whenever possible, and to learn from the event,” Zicklin said in a Sept. 5 statement.
Zicklin said a review from the California Department of Public Health found “no deficiencies” with the structures and determined the hospital was in compliance with all rules, ordinances and codes.
Zicklin also said Valla’s employment was never terminated: “She went on medical leave and never returned.”
Zicklin said the health system “continues to have every confidence” in CEO Caldwell, who was named in both lawsuits as someone who ignored or downplayed safety concerns.
Valla and Verbitski are both seeking unspecified damages against St. Mary, alleging the hospital retaliated and discriminated against them.
Valla’s case is scheduled for trial in January. No date has been set for Verbitski’s case, according to Hershey.