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Kaiser Fired Optometrist Whistle-Blower, She Says

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (CN) - Kaiser fired an optometrist because she and others opposed management's illegal sales-incentive program, she claims in a complaint filed in Riverside County Superior Court.

Lisa Levingston, O.D. sued Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc., Kaiser Foundation Hospitals and Southern Permanente Medical Group for violations of California Health and Safety Code, violations of California Business and Professions Code, retaliation in violation of the Labor Code, wrongful termination in violation of public policy and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Levingston was not the only one who objected to Kaiser's sales promotions that tied optometrists' bonuses to sales of specific manufacturers' glasses and frames, nor the only one who was punished, she says in her lawsuit. "For a number of years, Kaiser Riverside optometrists refused to participate in these sales promotions and refused the financial incentives," her complaint states.

But in 2011, Kaiser Riverside's (non-party) Managing Optometrist "began to pressure these optometrists to participate in the sales promotions that would financially incentivize the optometrists to sell and/or prescribe certain optical products. However, plaintiff, along with all of the Kaiser optometrists based in the Riverside medical service area, continued to oppose these practices, which plaintiff reasonably and correctly believed were in violation of California law and the Code of Professional Ethics," according to the complaint.

"In response to plaintiff's complaints of Kaiser's unlawful conduct, Kaiser orchestrated a series of escalating disciplinary actions against plaintiff and those optometrists who supported her and shared plaintiff's complaints," Levingston says.

Before Levingston opposed the incentives, she had received excellent performance reviews and patient satisfaction ratings, according to the complaint. But as she began trying to address the problem, Kaiser started giving her written correction notices based on bogus accusations, she says.

Levingston says the Managing Optometrist wrote false information in a patient's chart, claiming the patient had complained about Levingston's work and had asked to speak to a manager. Although Levingston provided management with an affidavit from the patient, declaring that those statements were untrue and asking for them be removed from her chart, other false charges against Levingston continued to escalate, she says.

Other complaining optometrists also faced retaliation, including bogus disciplinary actions, loss of privileges, and negative performance reviews backdated to make it appear that their purported shortcomings were longstanding, when in fact they had materialized in response to those doctors' complaints about the incentive program, according to the lawsuit.

However, Levingston says she was specially targeted because, as co-chair of Kaiser Riverside's Local Professional Practices Committee (LPPC) it was her responsibility to be the spokesperson for optometrists in the department. "The purpose of the LPPC is to provide a forum for joint decision making regarding the practice of optometry as it relates to the Riverside service area," she says.

Levingston says that when the Managing Optometrist put her on administrative leave and ultimately fired her, the reason given was that Levingston had failed to answer her office door quickly enough when the Managing Optometrist knocked, and had not immediately stopped what she was doing to put on a badge with a new Kaiser sticker on it, according to the complaint.

Levingston reports that she had worked for Kaiser for 21 years.

Levingston seeks economic and non-economic damages, special and punitive damages, prejudgment interest, attorneys' fees, injunctive relief and costs of suit.

She is represented by Charles T. Mathews of The Mathews Law Group in Arcadia.

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