The whistleblower advocacy and education group Taxpayers Against Fraud (TAF) just had their fourteenth annual conference in Washington. And in what has become a highlight of the three-day event, the organization made its annual Whistleblower of the Year award. This year’s winner is Elin Baklid-Kunz. She is the long-time employee of Halifax Health Medical Center who exposed the hospital’s wayward ways in how it compensated certain physicians to induce referrals to the hospital and in many cases, unnecessary surgeries altogether. She filed a whistleblower lawsuit under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act. The government intervened. And on the eve of trial, Halifax settled for $85 million and the obligation to undertake substantial internal compliance reforms. See DOJ Press Release.
Given the long hard road Ms. Baklid-Kunz took on this whistleblower journey, it is not surprising she was this year’s TAF whistleblower award winner. She emigrated from Norway and began her Halifax career as a Food and Nutrition Services Coordinator. After completing her MBA in 1998, she was promoted to a financial analyst position. She was promoted again in 2005 to the Compliance Department and then again in 2008 to Director of Physician Services. It was in that position where she first saw the warning signs of the hospital behaving badly.
She discovered contracts Halifax maintained with certain physicians that provided financial incentives the government ultimately concluded violated the physician self-referral law, commonly known as the Stark Law. This is the law that forbids a hospital from billing Medicare for certain services referred by physicians who have a financial relationship with the hospital. That law was implicated here by, among other things, contracts Halifax had with six medical oncologists that provided an incentive bonus that included the value of prescription drugs and tests that the oncologists ordered and Halifax billed to Medicare.
The point of the law is to ensure doctors make medical decisions and referrals based on medical need not financial gain. According to the government, the incentives Halifax provided these and other doctors at the hospital caused them to perform unnecessary surgeries at the hospital and cause medically unsupported hospital admissions. Some of the specifics Ms. Baklid-Kunz discovered and exposed were Halifax neurosurgeons performing procedures at four times the national average, and internal hospital audits showing 60 percent of sampled patients coming in with chest pain being admitted despite not meeting the appropriate admissions criteria.
Ms. Baklid-Kunz raised her concerns with Halifax management but was ignored and told her “loyalty should be with Halifax and not with the government.” That did not stop her. She says that she was motivated to keep going because she was “scared for patients” and that the hospital “knew it had broken the law” but “didn’t do anything about it.” “I kept hoping someone else would do it,” she said, “but sometimes you have to be that someone.” Ultimately what drove her to continue on with her campaign were her parents. “What if those unnecessary surgeries had been to my mother or father?”
Like so many whistleblowers before her, she was not applauded for her efforts at work. She was shunned and stripped of her responsibilities. People who used to interact with her on a regular basis would not even acknowledge her in the hallway. They were afraid they would lose their jobs. It was only after the settlement was reached did people begin to come forward and recognize her valiant crusade. In accepting the TAF award, she admitted that despite the handsome $20 million whistleblower award she received, she wishes it had been someone else who had been the one who blew the whistle on the hospital. At the same time, she made it clear that her decision to step forward was a no-brainer. She had to do it. She would do it again.
And such is the mindset of the whistleblower. Despite the strain and duress they know they will face. The risk to their career and the enormous cost to their personal life and relationships. They really have no choice but to say something when they see something. And who better to attest to this whistleblower mindset than Cheryl Eckard, the GlaxoSmithKline whistleblower (and now TAF Board member) who uncovered the company’s sale of contaminated drugs for which it paid a record $750 million civil and criminal penalty. She presented this year’s award to Ms. Baklid-Kunz along with a personal gift — a Tiffany key pendant, symbolizing Ms. Baklid-Kunz’s long journey and her new beginning. And she welcomed Ms. Baklid-Kunz to the ever-growing club of brave souls willing to stand up and be heard despite the certainty their life will never be the same for doing so.
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