MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) — A former nurse at Muskegon’s Mercy Health Hackley Hospital is suing, saying he was fired after he alerted the public to a lack of masks and other personal protection equipment during the coronavirus pandemic.
Justin Howe, 39, has a long history at Hackley. He was born there. His mother was a nurse there. His finacee still is. Howe himself worked in the intensive care unit for seven years as a neurotrauma nurse.
But a month ago, he lost his job.
“I belong at the bedside and it’s hard. It’s hard to see my friends going in there and I’m stuck at home,” Howe told News 8 Monday.
Howe said like all hospitals, Hackley was unable to get as much PPE as it needed, so some of the staff were using donated N95s and other masks. He claims the hospital only wanted Mercy Health system masks in use and told the staff to discard the others.
“It was pretty frustrating because here you have a limited resource of N95s nationwide and we’re being told to throw them away because they weren’t issued by the hospital,” Howe said.
As the president of the nurses’ union at Hackley, Howe became the public voice for the nurses’ concerns. Ten days later, he was fired.
Mercy Health officials were not available for on-camera comment Monday, but said in a statement that Howe was fired for “violating the privacy of multiple patients over a period of days by entering into their electronic medical chart without a need to do so.”
“We find it regrettable that Mr. Howe inappropriately accessed these records, as he breached our policy, HIPAA guidelines, and the trust we have with our patient and colleagues,” the statement reads.
Howe denied the allegations.
“They’re claiming I accessed charts of people I wasn’t taking care of, which I believe is absolutely false,” he said. “It’s pretty coincidental on the timeline and that’s why we filed retaliation charges with the (National Labor Relations Board).”
The Michigan Nurses Association filed the whistleblower suit in federal court in Grand Rapids on Howe’s behalf.
“He has been a seven-year employee with no previous disciplines,” MNA President Jamie Brown told News 8.
There are no records of anyone being fired for such an offense the union can find, it said, adding that the correct process for the termination was not followed.
“It appears that it’s a swipe at the union and union-busting tactics, trying to silence the voices,” Howe said.
The union said things like this are happening nationwide, citing a similar case at Detroit Medical Center Sinai-Grace Hospital in which a nurse made a video about her concerns and was fired.
Union leaders say the decision likely did not come from hospital officials in Muskegon or at Mercy Health in Grand Rapids, but rather from Trinity Health, which owns Mercy as part of its conglomeration of 93 hospitals in 22 states.
“They are people that are sitting far away from our communities making decisions based on the almighty dollar,” Brown said. “Hospital organizations would love to keep it in house and to keep the community from being aware of it, but nurses have their own code of conduct and that calls on us to advocate for our patients.”
Howe said he has no regrets.
“Safety was number one and I would stand up and do everything all over again,” he said.
The suit asks for lost wages and benefits, but Howe wants to be back on the front lines at Hackley.
“I want to be back at the bedside taking care of patients during this pandemic. I went to school for this. I’ve always had a calling for this,” he said.