The American Nurses Association hailed a new victory for two whistle-blower nurses from Winkler County, Texas - Vicki Galle and Anne Mitchell - with the conviction this week of County Sheriff Robert Roberts.
This case became known nationally after the two long-time registered nurses at Winkler County Hospital in Kermit, Texas, reported to the Texas Medical Board in 2009 about serious misconduct, substandard care and an inappropriate business partnership between Sheriff Robert Roberts and a hospital physician, Dr. Rolando Arafiles Jr.
Normally after such a report an investigation takes place and the complainants' names are kept confidential. However in this case, the sheriff used his position to confiscate the nurses' computers, finding their letter to the medical board. The hospital then fired the nurses, whose names were now public, and the nurses were charged with "official misuse of information," which could have resulted in 10 years of imprisonment and fines.
Nurses all over the country voiced support for their right to be protected as "whistle-blowers". The Texas Nurses Association supported them and nurses sent thousands of dollars to support their defense.
American Nurses Association President Karen A. Daley, in the online bulletin Nursing Insider, said, "The public trusts nurses to be their advocates and nurses are legally bound to protect patients and their quality of care."
"Safe harbor" laws allow nurses to report serious misconduct or patient care concerns anonymously so that charges may be investigated without reprisal or being fired. If nurses are scared to report concerns about physicians, they say, the public is in danger.
At the nurses' trial in 2010 the charges against Galle were dropped and Mitchell was acquitted.
Subsequently charges were filed against Dr. Arafiles, Sheriff Roberts, County Attorney Scott Tidwell, and the Winkler County Hospital. The charges included the same "misuse of information" that the hospital had initially charged the nurses with. But Dr. Arafiles was charged with several counts relating to unsafe patient care, violating the Medical Patient Care Act, and his business dealings with Sheriff Roberts, selling patients questionable health supplements. Another charge of "witness intimidation" was leveled against Sheriff Roberts who helped to identify the two nurses.
On June 14 Sheriff Roberts was convicted by a jury after only two hours of deliberation. He was sentenced to four years of felony probation, 100 days in jail and a $6,000 fine. He must surrender his "peace officer" license. The others who have been indicted, Dr. Arafiles and County Attorney Tidwell, await trial.
The hospital has already been fined $15,850 for improper supervision of the physician.
Protection of nurses and reporting laws are widely seen as of great importance for both nurses and patient safety. The new Affordable Health Care Act allows not only nurses but other health care personnel such as nurses' aides to report misconduct and unsafe conditions. The National Nurses Union has also taken up the issue of unsafe staffing conditions that seriously affect safe patient care.
As of last report the two Winkler County nurses have been out of work since the beginning of the case in 2009.