Whistle-Blower Claims Merck Fired Her

     PHILADELPHIA (CN) – Merck fired an analyst who raised concerns about a flawed research study that grossly overpaid a third party research firm, the woman claims in court.
     Joni Westawski sued Merck and Co. Inc. for Whistleblower Act violations and retaliation, in Federal Court. Merck is the only defendant.
     Westawski says in the lawsuit that her supervisor Bob Giannetti chose her to head up a 2009 research project.
     The study revolved around low-income Latino diabetics, specifically, their ability to successfully manage their disease despite their socioeconomic status, also known as Positive Deviance.
     Westawski claims she was told the company had allotted $250,000 for the project, and would be using outside research firm DrTango Inc., which would pull participants from employee lists at H-E-B, a large grocer in Texas and Mexico and a high-profile customer of Blue Cross Blue Shield Texas (BCBST).
     Westawski says in the complaint that other Merck employees had negative experiences working with DrTango and its executive vice president, Dirk Schroeder, but Giannetti assured Westawski the company had extensive experience with similar studies.
     Westawski claims: “The longer [she] worked on the Positive Deviance project, the more she became convinced that the goal was not really to produce a scientifically valid research study, but rather to use Mr. Schroeder’s personal connections at BCBST – Mr. Schroeder was known to be friends with Eduardo Sanchez, the chief medical officer at BCBST – to increase sales of Merck’s diabetic drugs to H-E-B and other BCBST customers.
     “When Ms. Westawski reviewed DrTango’s proposal, she felt that the number of study subjects was too small for the amount of money Merck was spending. Compared to other similar studies, it seemed that the DrTango’s ‘cost per interview’ was excessively high and that Merck was over-paying DrTango.”
     DrTango eventually agreed to add more subjects to the study, but several of the participants raised “data integrity” concerns, according to Westawski.
     She says she “often had to overrule an individual’s inclusion in the study because they failed to meet the inclusion criteria. One H-E-B employee DrTango proposed for inclusion in the diabetes study did not even have diabetes.”
     Westawski claims DrTango finished the project more than five months behind schedule, and that Giannetti then “directed Ms. Westawski to come up with an addendum to the contract for DrTango to allow for further payment to Mr. Schroeder for speaking engagements regarding the study results at $25,000 per speech.”
     Westawski says she believed the study results would be shared only with other Merck employees and not made public, but soon realized “the DrTango project … was not intended for purely market research purposes, but as something Merck could provide as a direct benefit to H-E-B and BCBST.”
     “Specifically, with the information in the Positive Deviance project, H-E-B would be able to help its thousands of employees achieve greater compliance with diabetes care and, in the process, could cut costs by reducing the number of days workers missed due to illness. BCBST would see its costs go down. And Merck would sell more pills.
     “There was also clearly a direct benefit to DrTango, as Mr. Schneider would be paid for his involvement in the meetings with H-E-B and BCBST – i.e., the $25,000 per ‘speaking engagement.'”
     Westawski told Giannetti about her concerns and asked to meet with the company’s Business Practices and Compliance (BPC) department, but was told “not to take that step.”
     Eventually, Westawski confessed her fears that Merck might be violating federal laws to director Ken Lynn, who allegedly told her: “‘Get your Kevlar vest ready, it’s going to get ugly.’ … [and] that Merck’s BPC needed to be notified.”
     Westawski says an internal investigation was conducted while she was on maternity leave, and when she returned in February 2011, “Mr. Giannetti repeatedly scolded [her], accusing her of being responsible for what had happened and for making his life difficult.”
     After months of lobbying, Westawski says, she was finally granted a transfer in October 2011 – to a supervisor who was close friends with Giannetti.
     She claims that “for a lengthy period of time, plaintiff was given no work, no new assignments. Then she was given an inordinate amount of work with unreasonable deadlines.
     “A co-worker on her new team told Ms. Westawski, ‘Praveen [plaintiff’s new immediate supervisor] is going to micromanage you until you leave the company.” (Brackets in complaint.)
     In June 2012, Westawski was told her position at the company had been eliminated due to a reorganization in the market research department.
     The next day, however, Westawski says she received an email with a new organizational chart in which “her position had not been eliminated and someone else was sitting in her seat.”
     Westawski seeks damages for Sarbanes Oxley Act violations, retaliation, wrongful firing, Pennsylvania Whistleblower Act violations, lost wages and emotions distress.
     She is represented by Aaron Freiwald of Layser and Freiwald in Philadelphia.

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