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Nurses in Texas Whistleblower Case Settle for $750,000

Robert Lowes

Two nurses who lost their hospital jobs and endured criminal prosecution after reporting a physician to the Texas Medical Board over patient safety concerns will receive $375,000 each in a settlement of a federal lawsuit they had filed against their former employer, the physician, and other parties.

The case of the 2 nurses, Anne Mitchell, RN, and Vickilyn Galle, RN, became a cause célèbre in healthcare circles nationwide, especially among nurses who worried that they, too, could be punished for blowing the whistle on physicians they deemed dangerous.

The drama has played out in the Texas town of Kermit — population 5714 — the county seat of Winkler County in the western, oil-producing part of the state. Last year, Mitchell and Galle, then employees of Winkler County Memorial Hospital, sent an anonymous letter along with patient files to the Texas Medical Board alleging that another hospital employee, Rolando Arafiles, Jr, MD, was practicing substandard medicine. The nurses were charged in a state court with misuse of official information — a felony — after the sheriff of Winkler County, at Dr. Arafiles’ behest, managed to trace the anonymous letter back to Galle and Mitchell.

The hospital then fired both nurses. The local prosecutor dropped the criminal charge against Galle but took the case against Mitchell to trial in February, contending that she had reported Dr. Arafiles to the Texas Medical Board out of personal animosity. The jury found Mitchell not guilty in less than 1 hour.

There was still another legal battle for the nurses to fight, however. Last summer, Mitchell and Galle sued Dr. Arafiles, their former hospital and its administrator, Winkler County, the county sheriff, and other government officials in federal court. The nurses contended that the defendants had subjected them to malicious prosecution and violated their free speech rights as well as the state whistleblower law.

All parties to the federal lawsuit recently settled out of court, with the last signatures to the agreement inked by the commissioners of Winkler County on August 10. The defendants will pay $750,000 — or $375,000 apiece — to Mitchell and Galle, who in turn will dismiss all claims against the defendants. The settlement agreement stipulates that nothing in it shall be construed as any admission of fact or liability.

Physician in Question Now Faces Medical Board Charges

With the nurses’ federal lawsuit coming to a close, the public spotlight now shines fully on Dr. Arafiles and Winkler County Memorial Hospital. Following up on the original letter from nurses Galle and Mitchell, the Texas Medical Board charged Dr. Arafiles in June with poor medical judgment, nontherapeutic prescribing, failure to maintain adequate records, overbilling, witness intimidation, and other violations.

In one instance of substandard care, Dr. Arafiles sutured part of the rubber tip from a pair of suture kit scissors to a patient’s crushed thumb, according to the board. Dr. Arafiles has maintained he was attempting to stabilize a fracture. In another incident, Dr. Arafiles rubbed an olive oil solution on an abscess caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — a use not approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Attempts to reach Dr. Arafiles by press time were unsuccessful. An attorney for Dr. Arafiles in the Texas Medical Board case told Medscape Medical News that her client denied that he engaged in any "questionable medical treatment."

Meanwhile, the Texas Department of State Health Services has proposed a $15,850 fine on Winkler County Memorial Hospital for violations involving an unnamed physician who matches the description of Dr. Arafiles. The proposed fine stems in part from the firing of 2 hospital employees who supplied the Texas Medical Board with a physician’s patient records. Medscape Medical News has asked both the state and the hospital if the fine has been paid, but has yet to receive an answer.

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