By Alexis Rivas, Dorian Hargrove and Tom Jones, NBC7 San Diego, July 9 2020
Workers for the nation’s largest for-profit hospice care provider say the company has put their health and safety, and the lives of thousands of nursing home residents and employees, at risk of catching COVID-19, all to make an extra buck.
In a lawsuit, an employee of Vitas Healthcare, a provider of hospice care across the country including San Diego County, says company executives ordered sales representatives to “sneak into” nursing homes and hospitals, even asking them to pose as healthcare workers in order to drive sales despite the death toll from COVID-19 ticking upwards at a rapid rate.
“Vitas has continued to require its Sales Representatives to make in-person visits to long-term care Facilities and hospitals to try to sell non-urgent hospice services…by improperly declaring that all of its employees, including Sales Representatives, are ‘essential’ and not subject to any of these orders,” reads the lawsuit.
NBC 7 Investigates spoke to Kristina Eisenacher, the sales representative that filed the case in Alameda County in June. Eisenacher said VITAS placed her on leave for refusing to conduct in-person visits at nursing homes in the Bay Area.
“I think that VITAS’ conduct has been appalling, it’s been extreme and outrageous and I felt that I needed to speak up about what was going on,” Eisenacher told NBC 7.
But Eisenacher is not alone, according to her attorney Kay Van Wey.
Van Wey claims VITAS did similar to employees across the country including to one sales representative in San Diego County, who was allegedly fired for refusing to go inside a hospital to arrange a sales lunch with a hospital administrator.
“We know for sure that this is a national problem,” said Van Wey.
Eisenacher shared with NBC 7 screenshots of text messages from employees whose supervisors praised them for gaining access to nursing homes by using donuts and other treats.
The allegations come as elderly people continue to die from COVID-19 related ailments.
More than 40% of all deaths from COVID-19 in California were residents living in nursing homes, according to the California Department of Public Health.
As of Wednesday, a spokesperson for San Diego County said 181 residents of local nursing home facilities have died from COVID-19.
In San Diego County, 72% of all of those who died from the novel coronavirus were over 70 years old.
In regards to Vitas, attorney Van Wey said the company put employees in danger by telling them they were essential employees and did not have to abide by stay at home orders.
“There’s nothing essential whatsoever about sales. This is sales and nothing else.”
Added Van Wey, “People who follow orders are more dangerous than the people who are giving them.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Vitas said, “Representatives are critical to ensuring access to hospice care for healthcare partners, and thereby hospice-eligible patients, making them essential workers in the healthcare system.”
The spokesperson added that nursing homes as well as other healthcare facilities need all the support they can get during the pandemic.
“In times like this, when the healthcare system has been significantly disrupted, it is essential that the entire healthcare continuum, which includes hospice care, is supported and remains viable for the benefit of people in need…Our policies follow guidance provided by federal, CDC, state and local authorities with regard to the wellbeing of our staff.”