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Friday, May 28, 2004
A former Kaiser Permanente employee filed a whistle-blower lawsuit this week against the health care network, claiming he was fired for complaining to regulators about Kaiser's X-ray standards. 

The lawsuit came despite a lengthy investigation by the Oregon Department of Human Services in 2002 and 2003, which found no rule violations and concluded the employee's allegations were unfounded. 

Tim Coe's complaint, filed Tuesday in Multnomah County Circuit Court, accuses Kaiser of unlawful employment practices and wrongful discharge. It seeks $250,000 in damages plus money for lost wages and benefits. Coe worked from 1997 through December 2003 as an X-ray technician at Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas. 

Kaiser's Northwestern region includes only one hospital, Sunnyside, but the organization offers health insurance and operates clinics from Longview, Wash., to Salem, providing care to about 435,000 people. The nonprofit's regional headquarters are in Portland, but its parent company operates out of Oakland, Calif. 

Beginning in August 1998, Coe began complaining to Kaiser about its radiology department. Coe contends in this week's court filing that the practices included causing "unnecessary" and "harmful" repeat X-rays, much more so than other hospitals and radiology labs nationwide. 

Kaiser officials Thursday declined to comment, and neither Coe nor his Portland attorney could be reached for comment. 

In May 2002, Coe lodged a complaint with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which forwarded it to Oregon regulators, according to court records. The state soon launched an investigation of Kaiser. Oregon's Radiation Protection Services office, within the Department of Human Services, put three investigators -- half of its staff -- onto the case, which lasted until September 2003. 

Most investigations are completed in a few hours and target single small offices, rather than large operations such as Kaiser, said Bob Rapcinski, the department's X-ray program manager. 

Investigators "looked into every aspect one could look into," Rapcinski said. The process included reviewing 800 randomly chosen X-rays taken by seven Kaiser radiologists and sending questionnaires to 67 of the radiologists. 

Investigators concluded that Kaiser's standards for reviewing X-rays appeared "reasonable and achievable," and mirrored those used in accredited radiological technology education programs nationwide, according to the state report. 

Kaiser radiologists repeated X-rays between 9 percent and 10 percent of the time, about an average rate in the industry, Rapcinski said. 

Kaiser couldn't account for about 1 percent of its X-ray films at its two busiest facilities, Kaiser Sunnyside and its Portland outpatient clinic on North Interstate Avenue, according to the report. That amount, the state agency decided, did not substantiate the allegation that radiologists removed large numbers of unacceptable X-rays from their work sites in order to avoid detection by quality control staff. 

Although investigators did not find evidence to substantiate Coe's claims, they did note another ominous trend among the responses received from Kaiser radiologists on the questionnaires. 

Results revealed that although most radiologists think their employer's standards are reasonable, more than half viewed Kaiser's policies as punitive and not supportive, the report showed. Such a response "appears to represent a serious communication problem" within Kaiser, according to the report, which urged the company to resolve the issue to prevent future complaints. 

Boaz Herzog: 503-412-7072; 

Copyright 2004 Oregon Live. All Rights Reserved. 

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