Texas Nurse Acquitted of Felony Charge for Reporting Doctor
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
February 12, 2010
Feb. 12—A Kermit nurse did not commit a felony by reporting concerns about a doctor to the state medical board, a West Texas jury decided Thursday.
The jury of six men and six women deliberated for about one hour before reaching their verdict in a case that had drawn national attention. After the verdict was read, each of the jury members went over to the nurse and hugged her, courtroom observers said.
Texas nurses and association leaders said the verdict was a show of support for Texas nurses as those who are in the front lines of patient safety.
“It’s wonderful news for us,” said Clair Jordan, executive director of the Texas Nurses Association in Austin. Without such a vote of confidence, she said, “there would have been a chilling silencing of a very strong voice for patients.”
The Texas regulatory boards for doctors and nurses had both admonished prosecutors for charging nurse Anne Mitchell.
Mitchell, who worked as the compliance officer for Winkler County Memorial Hospital, was charged with misuse of official information after she and another nurse, Vickilyn Galle, the hospital’s quality improvement officer, reported their concerns about Dr. Rolando Arafiles Jr. to the Texas Medical Board.
Mitchell reported what she considered a pattern of improper prescribing and surgical procedures. The two nurses did not sign the letter. But after the medical board contacted Arafiles as part of its investigation, he turned to the Winkler County sheriff, who got a search warrant and seized the nurses’ computers.
Had Mitchell been found guilty, nurses would have been hesitant to blow the whistle in cases that involved potential harm to patients, said Kathy Thomas, executive director of the Texas Board of Nursing.
The Texas Medical Board had told prosecutors that it was improper to put Mitchell on trial for reporting her concerns.
Sheriff Robert Roberts, a friend of Arafiles, said the nurses circumvented hospital policy for reporting bad medical practices because of what he called a personal vendetta against Arafiles. He also said that the nurses didn’t seek patients’ permission when they sent medical records of 10 patients to the board. The records did not include the patients’ names.
The hospital fired both nurses.
Both were indicted for the felony charge, but the case against Galle was dropped before Mitchell went on trial.
Many nurses had complained that the case was retaliation for Mitchell’s blowing the whistle on the doctor.
Laura Fletcher, a nurse and an optometrist in Bedford, said that “it’s a travesty of our judicial system that medical professionals are being prosecuted for doing their job according to the law.”
Nursing schools throughout the state have been using the case in their course studies with students, reminding them of the duty of every nurse to report possible wrongdoing.
The Texas code of ethics for nursing and the Texas Nursing Practices Act both say that it’s a nurse’s duty to report unsafe care, whether it’s from a doctor or a pharmacist who prescribes the wrong type of medications.
But the prosecution tried to prove that Mitchell used confidential information to try to harm Arafiles. The Texas Medical Board, however, told the county and district attorneys that complaints it receives are confidential and that under federal law the board is exempt from patient privacy laws.
The medical board has not made a final determination in its investigation of the complaint. Arafiles is still practicing medicine, Jordan said.
(This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.)
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