Health & Medicine

New California law protects nurses who blow the whistle about poor patient care

In 2016, Teresa Brooke was fired from Aurora Santa Rosa Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Sonoma County, for reporting a “full-blown patient riot” and multiple instances of patient self-harm and sexual assault that she witnessed at the hospital.

Because Brooke was Aurora’s chief nursing officer, she had an ethical obligation to file that complaint, her attorney, Xinying Valerian, said in a report. Now she is facing a lengthy legal process to prove it.

While the California Department of Public Health substantiated Brooke’s complaints and Sonoma County Superior Court cleared her case for a trial in the fall of this year, Valerian says many other potential hospital whistleblowers are silenced.

“Workers are scared of retaliation and being blacklisted in the field,” Valerian said in an email to The Bee.

That’s why on Thursday the California Nurses Association applauded California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to sign Senate Bill 322, which will protect whistleblowers at health care facilities from discrimination and retaliation.

In another case, Mercedita Desumala, 30 years a registered nurse for Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, was fired in 2015 for warning that cost-cutting initiatives there jeopardized patient safety and violated state labor laws, according to Courthouse News.

Some years earlier, Rachel Mendoza, a nurse at Rideout Memorial Hospital in Marysville, was physically assaulted while trying to file a report about hospital staffing, National Nurses United reported.

The State’s Health Safety Code should have protected these nurses already. Back in 2012, Mendoza alleged in a lawsuit against Rideout that “the state of California took violations of safety and health care seriously and would stand up for her rights to demand safe working conditions and proper care and treatment of patients under her care.”

However, Mendoza did not find relief until she had filed a lawsuit in Yuba County Superior Court and a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board. She was reinstated two years later but lost all benefits she had acquired over 13 years working at the hospital, according to National Nurses United.

The bill that Newsom signed Wednesday amends the state’s Health Safety Code to encourage patients and health care workers to report unsafe patient care and conditions. The bill provides health care workers whistleblower protections when they issue a complaint or initiate an investigation about their employers.

“SB 322 is a step in the right direction,” Valerian told The Bee. “The word needs to get out that health care workers have these rights, and agencies need to have enough funding and resources to carry out effective investigations.”

With the new law, health care workers have the right to voice their concerns privately to the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health without the presence of hospital management, the California Nurses Association told The Bee in a news release.

The nurses union said it applauds Newsom for signing the bill.

“Registered nurses have a responsibility to advocate for their patients and to ensure they get the best care possible,” said union President Zenei Cortez in the release. “This critical law allows nurses to be effective advocates for patients and speak freely about conditions in hospitals and facilities.”

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Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.