In testimony that raises new questions about prison health care in Georgia, a whistleblowing nurse has alleged negligence in the medical treatment of inmates at Washington State Prison, including one who endured months of violent nose bleeds before it was determined the cause was cancer.
Anna Hargis said she copied the medical records of more than 30 inmates because she believed the prison’s medical director, Dr. Michael Rogers, was shredding portions that included her assessments.
“So I made copies and brought them out because I wanted to protect my own license from his shredding,” Hargis testified in a deposition recently obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Hargis’ testimony came as part of a lawsuit she filed claiming she was “locked out” of her position at the prison in retaliation for refusing to sign forms to place inmates in isolation. A lawyer from the Georgia attorney general’s office took her deposition in March. In April, the state agreed to pay Hargis $160,000 to settle the suit.
Hargis, who has been a nurse since 1990 and still works in the profession, said in an interview she copied the records only as a last resort after Rogers stopped listening to her pleas to check out seriously ill inmates.
“I was frustrated because I would refer (inmates) to Dr. Rogers and they wouldn’t be seen,” she said. “What could I do?”
Rogers strongly denied shredding or altering medical records, saying Hargis has long engaged in an effort to “connive” against him
“This is unbelievable,” he said in an interview. “She is trying to make stories. People who know me, they know I’m not capable of doing something like that.”
Rogers, who has been the medical director at Washington State Prison since 1998, is one of the longest-tenured employees of Georgia Correctional Health Care, the branch of Augusta University that provides physicians and other medical personnel for the state’s public prisons.
Hargis' deposition would seem to provide another area of inquiry for the school, formerly known as Georgia Regents University, in its ongoing review of Georgia Correctional Health Care. The review began in July following reports in the AJC on the deaths of inmates in the care of Dr. Yvon Nazaire at Pulaski State Prison and Emanuel Women's Facility.
However, Rogers told the AJC late last month he hadn’t been questioned by anyone at the university about what Hargis said. In fact, he told the AJC, he was unaware the nurse had made the allegations against him.
“I did not know this information you are giving me about shredding,” he said. “I had no idea.”
Rogers said he had been contacted a few weeks earlier by Dr. Billy Nichols, Georgia Correctional Health Care’s statewide medical director, but only because the AJC had requested his personnel file.
“They just wanted to know if there was anything in my records that would be a surprise,” Rogers said. “I said no.”
Nichols declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to an email asking about Rogers’ comments.
Hargis sued the University System of Georgia and the Georgia Department of Corrections in 2009, a year after she lost her job at Washington State Prison. The suit contended her dismissal was an act of retaliation because she had reported to the DOC her belief that the form for placing inmates in the isolation/segregation unit went beyond the legal scope of practice for a registered nurse.
The settlement called for Hargis to receive $110,000 from the Georgia Department of Administrative Services and $25,000 each from Georgia Regents University and the DOC. It also stated that she should be classified as eligible for rehire.
“I was there to be a registered nurse, not to be judge and jury,” Hargis said, explaining why she sued. “I wasn’t able to know whether inmates could withstand the rigors of isolation.”
The suit marked Hargis’ second major whistleblowing effort. In the 1990s, she sought to call attention to unsafe natural gas lines in Georgia and then ran unsuccessfuly for a seat on the Public Service Commission.
Augusta attorney Mike Brown, who represented Hargis in her lawsuit, said his client is not driven by anything other than the hope that she can improve conditions for others.
“I see a lot of whistleblowers,” he said. “Most have big egos. She’s not that way. She’s straight as an arrow. She wants to do the right thing and does not deviate from that.”
`Bright red blood’
In questioning during Hargis’ deposition, one inmate whose condition drew particular attention was Willie Tucker, a Bainbridge man incarcerated from September 2004 to November 2006 for cocaine possession.
Hargis testified that Tucker was seen by Rogers in the infirmary for persistent nose bleeds between April and October 2006. She said Tucker was repeatedly told he was suffering from high blood pressure or a sinus infection. Finally, when he was hospitalized, the problem was identified as a cancerous mass in his naval cavity.
“This was bright red blood,” Hargis testified, explaining why she believed the inmate should have received more urgent care. “His shirt would be covered in blood.”
Interviewed recently by the AJC, Tucker confirmed that his nose kept bleeding until his mother contacted the prison warden, who arranged for him to be examined at Augusta State Medical Prison. The bleeding was so bad he said he couldn’t lie down at night and once had to be removed from the dining hall because of it.
“It went on a long time,” he said. “My nose would bleed. I’d go back (to the infirmary) and they kept telling me there’s nothing they could do for a nose bleed. I told the lady, `There’s something more wrong with me. I need something.’ They told me there’s nothing they could do and just sent me back (to his cell).”
Tucker said the discovery of cancer allowed him to return to Bainbridge, where he received chemotherapy and radiation. Although he can no longer produce saliva, the cancer hasn’t spread, the 53-year-old said.
A bag in the closet
The fact that Hargis copied inmate records only came to light in January when the documents were turned over to the Columbia County sheriff’s office as she was going through a contentious breakup with her common law husband.
Hargis said the records, which were in a canvas bag in her bedroom closet, were known to no one other than her attorney until they were removed from her Harlem home by the man's daughter.
The sheriff’s office investigated whether Hargis was engaged in identify theft and consulted with the U.S. Secret Service to see if she had violated federal patient privacy laws, said Maj. Steve Morris, a spokesman for the department. Satisfied that no laws were broken, it turned the records over to the health care organizations to which they belonged, he said.
Patient privacy is protected under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA. However, there is an exception that allows whistleblowers to share medical records with their attorneys.
Brown said he reviewed the records and decided to limit the lawsuit to the circumstances surrounding Hargis’ dismissal. The documents were then returned to Hargis, he said.
“The only other person she showed them to is me,” Brown said. “There was no intent to invade anyone’s privacy.”
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