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Health Department worker claims reprisals for billing report

December 08, 1998

Faith TostonBy LAURA ERNDE / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




An addictions counselor who blew the whistle on improper insurance billing procedures at the Washington County Health Department claims that she has become the target of retaliation.

[cont. from front page]

Faith Toston alleges she has been threatened with a transfer and disciplined for no reason. Someone even keyed her car at work the day after she spoke to insurance investigators, she alleged.

"It's been very stressful. It's caused a lot of tension in the workplace," she said. "I can only hope that it's going to end."

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According to her complaint filed with the state Office of Personnel Services, Toston became concerned in September 1997 that she was being improperly instructed on how to complete insurance records.

Toston, who is not a credentialed counselor, said she was told to bill her clients' insurance companies as if the clients she counseled had seen licensed social workers or, in some cases, Director of Outpatient Services Barbara Koelle.

To protect herself, Toston, 35, of Hagerstown, joined the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union and later the Maryland Classified Employees Association, she said.

She started keeping a detailed diary of everything that has happened to her, storing it in a three-ring binder that is now about 3 inches thick.

Toston reported the billing problem to state investigators and to seven insurance companies, not keeping it a secret within her small, 10-person department.

"I felt like it needed to be straightened out. I felt, morally, it was the right thing to do," she said.

Shortly afterward, retaliation began by her supervisor, Koelle, and Director of Addictions Rebecca Hogamier, she alleged.

In November 1997, Toston began to get "letters of instruction," which were supposed to be training tools, but which she said she viewed as punishment. She said her evaluations have been and continue to be excellent.

In March, Toston tried to set up a meeting with Health Officer Dr. Robert Parker and her supervisor Koelle, to talk about the insurance problems.

The meeting never took place but Hogamier was upset, Toston said she learned from Koelle.

"She wanted to send you up on the mountain (to the Catoctin Summit Adolescent Program, an extremely undesirable transfer). I saved your ass this time and I can't keep saving it," Koelle told Toston, according to a letter Toston filed with the state Office of Personnel Services.

On May 20, Toston met with William T. Grossclose, chief of the Division of Internal Audits of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in Baltimore, to talk about the billing situation.

The next day, Toston's car was keyed while it was parked outside her office at 13126 Pennsylvania Ave., which is an annex to the Health Department's main office at 1302 Pennsylvania Ave., she said.

Also that day, Toston claims she was told by another health department employee, "I know how to get you to leave, just put you up at CSAP and we know you won't go and would just quit."

On June 11, Koelle and Hogamier told Toston she was being transferred to Catoctin Summit Adolescent Program. The assignment was night work instead of the day shift she has worked since joining the health department in 1990, she said.

Toston is fighting the transfer, arguing it was not appropriate because she has no experience treating adolescents.

When she learned of the transfer, Toston decided to hire an attorney, Diane A. Seltzer of Washington, D.C., and is considering taking the Health Department to court.

"I knew that I couldn't do this alone and that I needed help. I felt like my back was completely up against the wall. I also was scared of what was going to happen to me," she said.

In July, Toston's supervision, which had been sporadic, increased to once a week, which she felt was unnecessary, she said.

In September, Toston said, Koelle and Hogamier denied her a promotion.

The alleged retaliation has caused co-workers to shy away from her, fearing they might be next, she said.

"It's tragic that this has happened. It's been extremely hard to stay focused on my job," she said.

Koelle and Hogamier declined to comment after Parker said he would be their spokesman.

Parker said he could not comment on the whistle-blowing allegations, which are being investigated by the state's Office of Personnel Services and Benefits in Baltimore.

"We don't feel there is any justification of the complaints. However, these whistle-blowing complaints have been taken seriously," he said.

Toston said she has thought about quitting many times, but she refuses to be pushed out of a job that she loves.

"I deserve to be there. I didn't do anything wrong," she said.

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