A Tampa health clinic whose medical director failed to warn workers at a local lead factory that the amount of metal in their bodies put them in danger will close next week, the clinic announced.
Comprehensive Occupational Medicine for Business & Industry, known as COMBI, has contracted with Gopher Resource since 2013 to provide workers with exams and blood tests mandated by federal rules and to handle workers compensation cases.
A Tampa Bay Times investigation published last year detailed serious flaws in the care Gopher workers received. The Times found that Dr. Bruce Bohnker, the clinic’s medical director, deemed signs of serious health problems to be “clinically insignificant” and failed to conduct required follow-up to protect workers from the toxic metal cadmium. Some of those workers had blood-lead levels that were more than four times as high as levels considered elevated by health experts.
Gopher was not COMBI’s only client. The clinic, managed by TeamHealth Ambulatory Care, also provided occupational medical services to other area workers, including city of Tampa firefighters.
Earlier this month, the clinic announced it was closing by publishing ads in the Times. The clinic also sent letters to its clients, outlining the timeline for closing and steps for obtaining employee medical records.
“After many years of service in the greater Tampa area, COMBI will be closing permanently on May 6,” a letter to the Tampa fire pension fund board said.
“It has been our privilege to provide occupational medicine services to your company and the Tampa area over the years.”
TeamHealth, Gopher and Bohnker did not respond to multiple requests for comment or answer questions about the reason for the closure. Two receptionists working at the clinic told a Times reporter this week that Bohnker was retiring.
Gopher also did not answer questions about how the company plans to provide medical services to workers moving forward.
However, in an email to Gopher staff, obtained by the Times, the company said it had “established onsite medical capabilities in Tampa for employees.”
The addition of on-site medical services is one of several changes that have happened at Gopher over the past few months. Since mid-January, the top managers of the company’s environmental safety, laboratory and human resource departments have all left, according to emails, worker interviews and their social media pages.
The staffing shake-up has come while the factory has been subject to increased government scrutiny over its emissions. Gopher also faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from federal and county inspections prompted by the Times’ reporting.
The newsroom’s investigation found that workers at Gopher were exposed to lead and cadmium levels that reached dozens and hundreds of times the federal limits. Gopher gave them respirators that didn’t always protect them, and the company moved slowly to fix problems with the factory’s ventilation system that contributed to higher exposures.
The majority of workers from 2014 to 2018 had enough lead in their blood to put them at risk of increased blood pressure, kidney dysfunction or cardiovascular disease.
Federal rules require Gopher to provide check-ups and medical tests for workers who are exposed to certain levels of toxic substances, like lead and cadmium.
But the exams Bohnker gave were cursory, according to current and former factory employees. When workers had ailments that could be caused by lead or made worse by exposure to it, the doctor didn’t note a possible connection or warn them of the consequences. Instead, he cleared them to work.
The doctor also repeatedly failed to follow up on lab tests designed to protect the health of workers exposed to cadmium, which is known to cause kidney damage and cancer.
After the Times asked Gopher about the lack of follow up, the inquiries appeared to prompt changes. At least two workers with signs of possible kidney damage were called back to the doctor’s office for further testing.
One was referred to a kidney specialist on workers compensation.