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Army Settles with Whistleblower who Exposed Unsafe Hospital Conditions

The Army has settled with an employee who was reprimanded after reporting unsafe patient conditions at a major military hospital, revelations that led to the hospital's chief being relieved of command.

The announcement by the Office of Special Counsel released Tuesday mirrored similar problems at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, where staff who report dangerous conditions have routinely experienced retaliation.

Teresa Gilbert was an Army civilian infection control analyst at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. In early 2014, she reported lax infection control policies to a hospital accreditation group, according to the OSC, an independent federal investigative agency that specialized in whistleblower protection. Specifically, Gilbert told the Joint Commission that the hospital had not addressed long-standing problems with unsterilized instruments, failure to disinfect medical devices, and supervisors who lacked the requisite training and education in infection control.

An OSC investigation found Gilbert's supervisors subsequently barred her from any participation in improving infection control at the hospital. When she made further reports to the commission as well as to the Army Surgeon's General office, her hours were cut, and she was reprimanded for being absent without leave for missing the hours her boss had removed from her schedule, according to the OSC.

Later, Gilbert received a notice that she had been recommended for removal for accessing a patient's medical information, which the OSC investigation found to be bogus.

Gilbert's reporting eventually led to Womack chief Col. Steven J. Brewster being removed from his position and disciplinary action against several other staffers.

The Army and Gilbert reached a settlement that includes a monetary settlement and removal of negative information from her employment records. Terms of the settlement are confidential.

"She is thrilled that her ordeal is over and that she can move on with her life and she is proud that she was able to stand up for what she knows was right," Gilbert's attorney, Kevin Owen said in a brief phone interview with Stars and Stripes.

Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner praised Gilbert, who is now retired from federal service.

"Ms. Gilbert deserves credit for disclosing the infection control problems at Womack," Lerner said in a statement. "The Army should have focused on correcting the problems she identified, rather than retaliating against her. However, in the end, the Army did the right thing by settling her claim. Ms. Gilbert's case underscores why whistleblower protections are vital."

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