The former program director of a Bangor methadone clinic plans to sue the facility’s parent company after a state panel found reasonable grounds to believe that he may have been fired in retaliation for raising concerns about the clinic’s operations.
Before he was fired from his job at Discovery House of Bangor Comprehensive Treatment Center, Brent Miller raised multiple concerns with the increasing number of patients counselors were expected to serve, and with the clinic’s adherence to state and federal regulations.
In his October 2017 filing with the Maine Human Rights Commission, Miller said he should have been protected under Maine’s Whistleblower Protection Act for making those complaints. Miller, who was 63 when he was fired in April 2017, also suggested age discrimination played a role in his termination by Acadia Healthcare, Discovery House’s Tennessee-based parent company.
A human rights commission investigator did not find reasonable grounds for either of Miller’s complaints, and Acadia Healthcare has disputed his allegations, saying that Miller was fired for potentially fraudulent behavior after he signed a colleague’s name on an incident report that was sent to state officials.
But in August, the Maine Human Rights Commission partly sided with Miller. It voted 4-0 that there were reasonable grounds to believe Acadia Healthcare may have violated the Whistleblower Protection Act. That was a fairly unusual outcome. In both 2017 and 2018, the commission found reasonable grounds in 13 percent of all cases that reached the investigation stage.
With that finding, Miller now plans to file a civil lawsuit against Acadia Healthcare, according to one of his attorneys, Ali Tozier of Portland. His case is now in a stage called conciliation in which both parties have a chance to work out a resolution. But that process is nearly over and they have been unable to reach an agreement, Tozier said.
In his nine-page complaint, Miller suggested that problems arose after Acadia Healthcare bought Discovery House’s parent group late in 2015 and hired a new regional supervisor in March or April of 2016.
The Tennessee company employs more than 19,000 people and runs nearly 600 behavioral health treatment centers across the country. The Discovery House is one of three methadone clinics in Bangor. The other two are Penobscot County Metro Treatment Center and Northern Light Acadia Hospital.
( Acadia Hospital is affiliated with a Maine-based entity called Northern Light Acadia Healthcare, and both entities are part of the statewide hospital network called Northern Light Health. They are not connected to the Tennessee-based parent company of Discovery House that Miller named in his complaint.)
In the late spring of 2016, Miller raised his concerns about a new intake procedure that he worried could violate patients’ confidentiality by directing their initial calls to a centralized location. He first mentioned his concerns to a regional supervisor. Then, when he did not think his concerns were being addressed, he sent them to a vice president at Acadia Healthcare.
On multiple occasions between early 2016 and 2017, Miller also expressed concern that staff were being asked to treat too many patients, and that the clinic was not complying with state counseling and documentation requirements.
The human rights commission investigator confirmed that Miller made those complaints and also that his regional supervisor became frustrated with him after the one in the spring of 2016.
The investigator said there was evidence that the regional supervisor “was hostile toward [Miller] and treated him unprofessionally after he made the first report about intake.” But the investigator also found that the clinic was in compliance with some of the rules Miller suggested it might be violating.
In an emailed statement, Eriko Farnsworth, the clinic director at Discovery House of Bangor, disputed Miller’s complaints.
“Discovery House strongly disagrees with the allegations made by Mr. Miller,” Farnsworth said. “Our clinicians strictly adhere to our policies and procedures and provide medication-assisted treatment and counseling services that are fully compliant with all applicable laws and regulations.”
Farnsworth added, “Because we are in litigation with Mr. Miller, we cannot comment further.”
The human rights commission investigator also outlined the incident that Acadia Healthcare said was its reason for firing Miller: when he signed for another employee on an incident report that was sent to state officials.
Miller, who led the Bangor clinic for a decade, at one point delegated the job of reviewing and signing incident reports to a clinical supervisor but retained the ability to sign them himself, according to the investigator’s report. So on March 1, 2017, when he found a report about a patient’s death that was due to be submitted to the state, he signed the clinical supervisor’s name and wrote his own initials next to the signature.
About a month-and-a-half later, state officials reviewed the report and found that Miller’s actions “could be perceived as fraud,” the investigator said. Administrators at Acadia Healthcare also grew concerned that the clinical supervisor could in turn take legal action against the company.
On April 27, a supervisor told Miller that he was fired because he had put the company at legal risk.
While the investigator did not find there were reasonable grounds to believe that Acadia Healthcare fired Miller because he raised complaints, the appointed members of the Maine Human Rights Commission ultimately reached the opposite conclusion.
The panel does not record what commissioners say before they vote on a complaint. Amy Sneirson, the commission’s executive director, said she could not recall their whole discussion of Miller’s complaint.
But as part of the discussion, they questioned how clear it would have been to Miller that he should not have signed for his colleague, Sneirson said.