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Analysis

Lee Health Defends Its Handling of Nurse Accused of Raping 3 Patients

By Steven Porter  
   September 24, 2018

The nurse was placed on unpaid leave after a third alleged rape of a Cape Coral Hospital patient. Now the organization is fending off an allegation that its systems failed.

A federal judge in Florida has ordered Fort Myers–based Lee Memorial Health System to surrender records documenting any and all sexual assault allegations brought against the public hospital system's employees from 2012 through 2016.

The system, which goes by Lee Health, has until Friday to hand the records over to a patient who's suing the organization for its failure to protect her from Jeovanni Hechavarria, RN, who allegedly raped her while she was admitted overnight at Cape Coral Hospital in 2016.

The suit, which accuses Lee Health of "deliberate indifference" to the plaintiff patient's constitutional rights, serves as a reminder for health systems across the country to review their policies and procedures both in writing and in practice.

Hechavarria allegedly had unrestricted access to the plaintiff's room despite Lee Health's leaders knowing he had previously been accused of sexually assaulting a patient, according to the lawsuit. He was arrested last year and faces criminal charges stemming from three separate alleged assaults on patients in 2015 and 2016, as the Fort Myers News-Press reported. He was reportedly placed on unpaid leave after the third incident and later fired. An emergency restriction was placed on his license in January 2017.

Mary Briggs, a spokesperson for Lee Health, expressed confidence in the way the organization handles allegations against its employees.

"When a criminal allegation is made, we promptly respond, report the matter to the appropriate authorities and fully cooperate with law enforcement," Briggs said in a written response to questions from HealthLeaders. "Law enforcement was immediately contacted and performed investigations after each alleged incident that was reported to us."

Police briefly investigated the first of the three allegations when it was raised in March 2015, but they dropped the case partly because they lacked physical evidence, as the News-Press reported. Lee Health officials told the paper Hechavarria was not disciplined at the time.

An officer who investigated the initial allegation in 2015 wrote in his report that, due to a lack of evidence, inconsistencies in the victim's story, and "her poor account of what events actually took place," he found that "no crime had been committed," as FOX4's Stephanie Tinoco reported last year. The victim told Tinoco that police failed to take her complaint seriously.

Related: C-Suite Must Lead on Sexual Harassment Policy

Although the way healthcare organizations handle allegations made against their employees may vary from case to case depending upon the specific nature of each allegation, they should generally avoid relying solely on law enforcement to investigate, says Jo Ellen Whitney, JD, chair of the Davis Brown Law Firm employment and labor relations department in Des Moines, Iowa.

"I would always recommend that we do our own investigation as well simply because the police investigation may take a much longer time, and we're talking about a different standard, which is 'beyond a reasonable doubt,'" Whitney tells HealthLeaders.

"As a hospital or as a clinic or any other kind of care provider, there may be other issues," Whitney adds. "Maybe [any given allegation] didn't rise to criminal assault but it is not something that we will tolerate from our providers, caregivers, or staff. It could be less than what was originally alleged. It could be something that's not criminal but something we would still terminate an employee for."

In addition to calling law enforcement, it's important for leaders to notify other relevant authorities as well, Whitney notes. For medical professionals, those authorities could include licensure and ethics bodies. Also, keep your insurance company in mind, she adds.

"Sometimes insurance is going to have a specific framework of how they want you to respond to these claims, so facilities would always need to be talking to the insurance provider," Whitney says.

Related: Women In Medicine Shout #MeToo About Sexual Harassment At Work

In the Lee Health case, Briggs said the discovery request for records pertaining to these and any other sexual assault allegations—which Lee Health persuaded the judge to limit to five years, rather than the 11 years sought by the plaintiff—is a routine part of litigation.

"We have not yet completed the research necessary to respond, but will do so in a timely manner," she said last week.

"The safety and well-being of our patients is Lee Health's highest priority and we are confident Lee Health will prevail in this lawsuit," Briggs added.

Steven Porter is editor at HealthLeaders.


KEY TAKEAWAYS

The plaintiff accuses the health system of "deliberate indifference" for failing to protect her from a nurse who allegedly raped her and two other patients.

The initial criminal investigation was closed without an arrest after police noted the first victim's "poor account of what events actually took place."

Securing a criminal conviction requires a much higher standard of proof than does disciplining or firing someone. So don't rely solely on police to investigate.


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