Cause of Magee firing argued

By Walter F. Roche, Jr.
Published by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on November 6, 2008.

Lawyers for Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC and a former secretary painted sharply contrasting portraits of the woman Wednesday, telling an Allegheny County jury she was either a guardian of medical records and safety or someone who deserved to be fired for improperly accessing private medical records.

Donna Kovacs was just doing her job as a secretary when she copied and forwarded medical records to a Magee physician some five years ago, said her attorney, Vicki Kuftic Horne.

She told the jury Kovacs was wrongly fired and defamed when hospital officials sought to blame her for providing the information to the doctor, who also has a pending lawsuit against the Oakland hospital.

The Kovacs case is being heard before Common Pleas Judge Timothy P. O’Reilly and is expected to continue for two weeks.

Stating that the case was about “obligations and courage,” Horne said Kovacs was really fired for her role in bringing allegations of wrongdoing and bad record-keeping at Magee to the attention of state health officials.

Paul Vey, Magee’s lawyer, said Kovacs was first suspended and then fired after two patients independently came forward and accused the secretary of violating their privacy.

In one case, Vey said, a patient had expressly requested that a surgical procedure she had recently undergone be kept confidential. He said a second complaint followed within weeks accusing Kovacs of leaking confidential medical records.

Horne said Kovacs’ job was to process medical records and transmit them to physicians. In a statement later contested by Vey, Horne said the first patient authorized the release of her records to Kenneth McCarty, one of two physicians who have sued Magee on wrongful termination charges.

She said McCarty, who is expected to be called as a witness for Kovacs, had drawn the ire of Magee administrators by raising questions about record-keeping and patient safety. Horne said McCarty and a colleague discovered that pathologists’ electronic signatures had been routinely affixed to records they had never seen.

She said Magee officials suspected Kovacs was supplying information to McCarty and wanted to make her a scapegoat. They fired her as a warning to other employees who might be cooperating with the pathologist’s inquiries, Horne said.

Vey said it was two patient complaints followed by an internal inquiry that led to Kovacs’ dismissal in late 2004.

He said a review of computer files showed that Kovacs had accessed thousands of patient files, in much higher numbers than other members of the secretarial staff. And, he said, despite repeated opportunities, she was unable to provide an explanation.

Vey said the allegations of poor record-keeping and patient safety concerns only surfaced after Kovacs was suspended and fired.

“Magee was way ahead of the curve in protecting the privacy of its patients,” Vey said, adding that he former secretary was not the only worker fired for privacy violations.