Like other Minnesota employees, healthcare workers are protected from retaliation for reporting violations of law to their employer or to governmental authorities, participating in a government investigation or hearing, or refusing an employer’s directive to perform an illegal act. That said, these anti-retaliation provisions have special applications to healthcare workers, with laws like the Minnesota Whistleblower Act providing healthcare workers with additional rights. This should come as no surprise, given the importance of healthcare and society’s desire to ensure safe medical practices and to avoid unnecessary medical expenditures.
Statewide Protections for Healthcare Employees
First, the Minnesota Whistleblower Act protects employees who report “a situation in which the quality of health care services provided by a health care facility, organization, or health care provider violates a standard established by federal or state law or a professionally recognized national clinical or ethical standard and potentially places the public at risk of harm.” Minn. Stat. § 181.932, Subd. 1(4). In other words, healthcare workers are not just protected from retaliation for reporting violations of the law, but also for reporting violations of the standard of care, as well as violations of ethical standards, that could cause harm to patients. This is significantly broader than the protections provided to employees in general and it serves as an important safeguard to encourage medical providers to come forward with concerns without facing repercussions to their own employment.
Federal Protection for Reporting Fraud
While the federal False Claims Act protects and rewards individuals in general who report fraud against the government, healthcare workers more commonly run into such fraud than do most other employees. This is due in great part to the amount of federal money spent on healthcare and to the potential for abuse in medical billing. Employers are prohibited from retaliating against healthcare workers who report fraudulent practices, such as billing for services that were not provided, upcoding, billing for unnecessary services, and a number other fraudulent billing activities. Additionally, employees with knowledge of the fraud can initiate claims against their employer for the fraud, and if successful, collect a reward based on the government’s recovery against the employer. The potential reward and protection provide strong incentives for employees to speak out against the fraud and help the government recover its funds.
Reporting Unsafe Conditions without Retaliation
Finally, both the federal Occupational Safety and Health Act and Minnesota OSHA protect workers from retaliation for complaining to their employer or to the government about unsafe conditions in the workplace. For healthcare workers, this protection is more important than ever as healthcare facilities currently attempt to balance their business needs with their employees’ safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Too often, we have seen that balance tip in favor of the business at the expense of the employees’ safety and/or health. Reporting a dangerous work environment is protected conduct and the employer is prohibited from retaliating.