(This story by Nora Doyle-Burr was published in the Valley News on Oct. 12, 2017.)
LEBANON — A former infertility specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock is alleging that the hospital system wrongfully terminated her employment earlier this year, as a result of her disability and her blowing the whistle on “questionable medical practices” in D-H’s Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility program, which closed in May.
In a lawsuit filed against D-H on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Vermont, Dr. Misty Blanchette Porter alleges she learned on May 4 that the infertility program that had been in operation since 1979 would close at the end of May, and that she would lose her job in early June, after more than 20 years of D-H employment.
Blanchette Porter, a Norwich resident who currently is an employee at the University of Vermont Medical Center, alleges that despite the infertility clinic’s closing, she could have continued to serve as a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology and radiology. Her expertise includes performing fertility-saving surgical procedures and interpreting pelvic ultrasounds.
“Dr. Blanchette Porter is a talented gynecological ultrasonographer and surgeon who is skilled at providing consultative and surgical services that are in ongoing demand at Dartmouth-Hitchcock,” the complaint alleges. “There was more than adequate work available for Dr. Blanchette Porter to perform even after the REI Division closed, and there was no business reason why it was necessary to terminate her employment.”
In the complaint, Blanchette Porter alleges that D-H discharged her with malice and as retaliation for speaking out against practices she viewed as potentially harmful. In doing so, the complaint alleges, D-H violated the New Hampshire Whistleblowers’ Protection Act. It also alleges D-H violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and New Hampshire’s unlawful discriminatory practice laws when it failed to provide reasonable accommodations for her to perform her job and when it fired her.
An attempt to reach Blanchette Porter at a Norwich phone number on Wednesday evening was unsuccessful.
D-H declined to specifically comment on the lawsuit on Wednesday.
“D-H does not publicly discuss any personnel information or pending litigation involving former employees,” D-H spokesman Rick Adams said in an email. “We look forward to responding to the allegations in the appropriate judicial forum.”
Adams did acknowledge that there are “allegations arising out of the closure of its Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility program this past May.”
At the time of the clinic’s closing, Adams said, all four of the physicians employed by the infertility clinic lost their jobs.
The program, which had 124 patients at the time of its closing, struggled to recruit new providers, D-H’s new chief executive, Joanne Conroy, said in an interview in late August.
“We were just affected by the declining birth rate in this area and it wasn’t attractive to some of the young up-and-coming providers that we would want to recruit here,” she said. “Sometimes you have to make the tough decisions.”
In the complaint, Blanchette Porter alleges the program’s closing affected more than the clinic’s 124 patients.
The closing “will have a significant ripple effect on the available services and training of residents in inter-related subspecialties such as radiology, medical oncology, pediatrics, and medical endocrinology,” the complaint alleges.
The complaint alleges that the clinic and its providers demonstrated a tolerance for substandard care, participated in fraudulent billing practices, failed to obtain necessary patient consent and, in one instance, impregnated a patient when the patient and the sperm were at risk of being exposed to Zika virus.
Blanchette Porter alleges that the couple involved had traveled to both Brazil and the Caribbean, places where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that the Zika virus is actively being transmitted. Zika virus infection during pregnancy can result in miscarriage or stillbirth and can cause birth defects such as microcephaly, skull deformities and physical and cognitive disabilities.
“Despite Dr. Blanchette Porter’s explicit warning and the risk associated with the transfer of these embryos, the REI Division proceeded with an elective embryo transfer and the woman became pregnant,” the complaint alleges. “She has an ongoing pregnancy, thus the outcome is not known, and may not be truly known for years. The couple have one remaining embryo in long-term storage at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and, thus the potential for a second child exposed to the Zika virus remains.”
At the time of her firing, Blanchette Porter was on long-term disability and was working 20 hours per week as a result of an injury sustained in November 2015.
In the complaint, she alleges that the program’s director, David Seifer, failed to respect Blanchette Porter’s doctor-approved accommodations, urging her to resume a full call schedule, ignoring her work boundaries and asking her to consult with other providers on their cases.
She alleges that after she was terminated, “the Dartmouth-Hitchcock administration told members of the staff that the decision to terminate her employment was motivated by the fact that she had been out of work for an extended period and was only able to work part time.”
She is seeking to be reinstated as a D-H employee with no loss of seniority, as well as more than $75,000 in damages, “an amount to be proved at trial.”