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Doctors seek inquiry of colleague's firing at VA hospital

Four University of South Florida doctors are calling for an investigation of what they say was the improper firing of a colleague by the Bay Pines veterans hospital in St. Petersburg.

The termination, they said, threatens patient care and could lead to the loss of accreditation for the Bay Pines department that handles kidney disease.

Dr. Jacques A. Durr, who founded the Bay Pines Nephrology Department in 1993 and is a professor at USF's College of Medicine, was fired by the Veterans Administration on Nov. 7.

Durr, 60, said in an interview Tuesday he was fired in retaliation for his outspokenness about patient safety issues, starting with complaints about a flawed computer network in 2003.

Bay Pines administrators, he said, concocted problems with his work and gave him poor performance reviews after years of excellent evaluations as an excuse to fire him.

"They're trying to punish me," said Durr, who also has served as department chief. "It's unbelievable what they are doing. They can't be allowed to get away with it."

The four USF physicians requested an independent inquiry in a Nov. 21 letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, and Rep. Gus. Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor.

The four doctors are Elias Doumit, Ramon Lopez, Christopher McFarren and Stephen Rifkin. Lopez is a former VA physician also recently fired, Durr said.

The four physicians are assistant professors of medicine at USF's medical school and serve in its Division of Nephrology & Hypertension.

In their request for an investigation, the doctors said Durr's accomplishments at Bay Pines were threatened by a "harassing administration."

Durr and other employees at Bay Pines, the doctors wrote, "are the victims of some of this institution's administrators who, by abuse of power, have created false allegations and improper evaluations" in order to terminate Durr and others.

Bay Pines declined to comment because of the possibility of an investigation by its inspector general.

The four doctors either could not be reached Tuesday afternoon or declined to comment.

Contacted at his home, Durr said his problems with the VA began in 2003 when a computer network repeatedly malfunctioned.

That threatened patient care because Durr and other doctors were unable to get essential information on patients when the network crashed.

Durr became so frustrated with the network and his long-broken office computer, he put the machine in a trash bin in a public hall as a symbolic act. Administrators eventually moved to suspend him.

As a Swiss citizen, Durr said he feared this might prove troublesome to immigration officials. So around 2003 he sought whistle-blower protection under federal rules. The merits of the claim had not yet been decided.

The VA fixed the computer network, but Durr's problems mounted.

Durr was not a permanent VA employee, which he sought to change after he became an American citizen in 2006.

The VA delayed giving him permanent status, but finally agreed if he consented to be put on probation, Durr said.

"This was a dirty trick," Durr said, as it allowed the VA to more easily fire him.

In September, Durr's VA career ended after he refused to sign a memo presented to him by the new department chief outlining changes in Bay Pines' dialysis unit.

Durr said he refused, in part, because it didn't implement changes recommended by the inspector general in 2005.

Those recommendations, he said, included creating a procedural manual for nurses and putting nurses under management control of doctors.

"This isn't something benign," Durr said.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5306.

Doctors seek inquiry of colleague's firing at VA hospital 11/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 3, 2008 3:47pm]
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