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General News    H1'ed 11/1/12

Profile In Courage: A Beleaguered Whistle-Blower Physician Fights for Patients and Jobs -- and Wins

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Message Tom Nugent
Editor's note: This article as about one of our own, Jim Murtagh, who is our Whistleblowers and Whistleblowing editor.

After spending "twelve years in the wilderness" as one of America's most determined medical whistle blowers, Dr. James Murtagh achieves a legal victory that could change the way U.S. hospitals manage their physicians . . . while also helping to protect the American economy (think jobs ) by protecting due process in court-ordered arbitration proceedings.

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   ATLANTA -- At first glance, the recent decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals seemed innocuous enough.

   After more than 12 years of continuing litigation, the Court's finding of last July 26th simply pointed out that an Atlanta-area physician named James Murtagh was not in contempt of a lower Georgia state court, after all.

   As the Court noted in typical legalese: "The plaintiff's Emergency Motion for supersedeas is granted.  The plaintiff's motion for Expedited Appeal is denied, and it is ORDERED that the trial court reconsider its order of July 18, 2012. . . ."

   Translation: Jim Murtagh, M.D., had just won a major legal victory in his decade-long struggle to prove that officials at highly regarded Emory University had inflicted illegal reprisals on him for daring to blow the whistle on alleged research-funding fraud.  In addition, the Appeals Court lectured Fulton County Superior Court Judge Wendy L. Shoob by informing her that she didn't understand the term "contempt" . . . and that she had been legally harassing Dr. Murtagh from the bench for years.

   Dr. Murtagh's hugely controversial whistle blowing had disclosed alleged violations at both Emory and its teaching hospital, Grady Memorial of Atlanta, starting way back in 1999.

   The court battle that followed -- surely one of the great legal struggles of recent years which can be expected to affect medical practice at American hospitals -- has often focused on a crucially important question: whether or not hospital authorities can continue the practice of requiring their doctors to submit to unregulated and often fraudulent "peer review" evaluations by outside physicians who are sometimes encouraged by the hospitals to find against the doctors whose performance they are scrutinizing. 

A bit of background: the record shows clearly that many managed care hospitals have been using such trumped up, "sham" peer review proceedings as a method for protecting profits rather than patients.  These ersatz reviews often punish docs who stand up for their patients in disputes with hospitals . . . or who dare to criticize hospital decision-making by blowing the whistle on fraud, waste and abuse.   

That's exactly what Jim Murtagh did in 1999, when he agreed to testify about alleged research funding-fraud at Emory and Grady (and abuse of patients at Grady), to federal investigators from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who were looking into allegations of  fraud at both institutions.

   Soon after Dr. Murtagh -- a University of Michigan School of Medicine graduate who's won numerous awards and citations in his fields of pulmonary and sleep medicine -- confirmed that he was cooperating with the NIH investigators, he received two rude shocks.

   First, he was told that a bogus peer-review committee at Grady would be looking into charges that he'd been ignoring "Do Not Resuscitate" orders (a grave medical offense) during his daily shifts in the Intensive Care Unit at the large urban hospital.

   Second, Dr. Murtagh was ordered to take a sham "psychiatric fitness for duty" examination by Emory's own chosen psychiatrist. That psychiatrist reportedly wrote up such exams for his clients without even examining the targeted doctors or gathering factual evidence.  Even more startlingly, Murtagh later testified that he'd never been told what the hearings were about -- and that he wouldn't be allowed to attend the review procedures or respond to accusations against him.

   Murtagh balked.

   Instead of submitting to the findings of the peer review and taking the psychiatric exam, he sued the university and claimed that he had been illegally subjected to reprisals as a result of his whistle blowing about alleged research fraud.

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Investigative journalist Tom Nugent has reported for the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and many other publications.  He is the author of Death at Buffalo Creek (W.W. Norton), a book of (more...)

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