NORTHFIELD — Two former managers for AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center Emergency Medical Services claim that they were fired after they reported the squad’s chief for falsifying response times to at least one local municipality.
In a lawsuit filed in the Civil Division of the Cape May County Superior Court on Jan. 27, former AtlantiCare EMS managers Eric Winter and Jessica Shaw claim they were both fired Aug. 19 in retaliation for reporting squad Chief Juan “Johnny” Delgado for falsifying response times.
The New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act, or CEPA, protects individuals from retaliation when they are perceived to be “whistleblowers” who report alleged illegal and unethical workplace activities.
According to the complaint, Delgado directed Winter and Shaw — both Cape May County residents — to gather information in response to an Open Public Records Act request filed by citizens of Northfield at the end of 2010 and/or the beginning of 2011 regarding AtlantiCare’s EMS performance in that city.
Delgado then “proceeded to alter call data, particularly response time, to improve performance of the organization,” the suit claims.
The complaint says that Delgado then caused the falsified records to be submitted to the city of Northfield on multiple occasions in 2010 and 2011, and that he also altered, or caused to be altered, response records for Linwood, Egg Harbor City and Mullica Township.
Winter and Shaw claim they routinely objected to altering the records and that, in early 2011, Winter reported the alleged fraud to the squad’s vice president of materials management, Mel Meck. When asked for comment Thursday, Meck referred all questions to AtlantiCare spokespeople.
Beginning in February 2011, the complaint says, “Delgado began to gradually strip away the job responsibilities, duties and functions of both plaintiffs in a regular manner, ‘gutting’ both jobs.’” And that Winter and Shaw were both fired Aug. 19 for reasons explained to them as “violation of code of conduct, Policy No. 375,” as well as inappropriate behavior and lack of leadership.
Rene Bunting, a vice president of marketing and development for AtlantiCare, said, via email, that Policy 375 is a human resources policy that “covers nondiscrimination and code of conduct, as it applies to all privileges and conditions of employment. It is intended to define appropriate conduct for all employees. The policy references AtlantiCare’s values and behavioral expectations as guidelines for behavioral and professional conduct.”
Shaw was unable to be reached for comment, but when reached at his home in Dennis Township on Friday, Winter referred all questions to the Mount Laurel-based attorney handling their case, Kevin Costello. Costello was also unable to be reached for comment.
Their complaint says they seek unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, attorney’s fees, interests, costs, equitable back pay, equitable front pay, equitable reinstatement and “any other relief the Court deems equitable and just.”
AtlantiCare has reached out to all of the municipalities that it has a contract with to inform them of this situation, Bunting said, even though, to date, she says AtlantiCare is “not aware of any impact” to municipalities other than Northfield.
“We immediately took steps to rectify our administrative processes and addressed personnel issues,” Bunting said via email.
Mullica Township Mayor Jim Brown said he had not been contacted by AtlantiCare as of 2 p.m. Friday. Mullica started using AtlantiCare’s EMS about two years ago, after its own EMS service disbanded.
“There have been no complaints. If there’s something out there, the township’s not aware of it,” Brown said. “The service has been really excellent. I’ve heard nothing different.”
A voice mail message left for Egg Harbor City Mayor Joseph Kuehner was not returned Friday, but Linwood City Council President Donna Taylor said AtlantiCare’s legal counsel has reached out to Linwood’s counsel to inform them of the situation and to request documents from the city.
“Clearly this causes us a concern,” Taylor said. “But the fortunate part of this is, as far as we are aware, there have been no compromises with respect to services provided to Linwood residents, and that is the most important thing.”
When asked if Delgado had been terminated, Bunting replied in an email: “Our policy is not to discuss personnel matters.”
However, multiple Northfield officials who met with AtlantiCare officials Friday said the health care provider openly discussed the personnel matter with them.
“(Delgado) was let go, that was conveyed to us at the meeting,” Mayor Vincent Mazzeo said.
“And I understand they now have an acting chief in place,” City Council President Tim Carew said of what AtlantiCare representatives assured the Northfield officials during the meeting.
Delgado could not be reached for comment.
Even though Carew said AtlantiCare did not discuss the specific allegations during the meeting, he said that he is satisfied with how AtlantiCare has handled the situation so far, and that he was assured that it had “absolutely no effect” on the city’s residents.
“I’m satisfied, so far, in their thoroughness and timeliness in getting us on board, considering all of the dynamics involved,” Carew said. “And I understand AtlantiCare has standards that they’re going to uphold.”
But Mazzeo said he was “totally dissatisfied” with the situation.
The city’s contract with AtlantiCare — provided to The Press of Atlantic City by the city — states that the response times for at least 90 percent of city calls must be less than 4 minutes and 59 seconds. Mazzeo said the falsified information helped the squad meet this requirement.
The reported response times in these towns were not available as of Friday.
“The trust between AtlantiCare and the city of Northfield has definitely been broken,” he said. “And going forward, we are going to have a lot of questions and I will want them answered.”
Staff writers Lee Procida and Derek Harper contributed to this report.
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