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Former officials at troubled state psychiatric hospital sue over firing, allege retaliation

December 3, 2018

LINCOLN — Former top officials at the state psychiatric hospital say they were fired this summer for trying to discipline two hospital psychiatrists.

Dr. Natalie Baker-Heser, the hospital’s former medical director, and Stacey Werth-Sweeney, the former facility operating officer, made the claim in a lawsuit filed in Lancaster County District Court.

The two were terminated from the troubled Lincoln Regional Center on June 12. The hospital treats patients with severe mental illnesses, as well as sex offenders with mental disorders.

The lawsuit names the state and the Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the regional center, as defendants.

Matt Litt, an HHS spokesman, said the department does not comment about pending litigation.

According to the suit, Baker-Heser and Werth-Sweeney got nearly identical termination letters within minutes of each other. The letters were unsigned, did not identify the person who decided to fire them and gave no reason or explanation for the firing.

But the two say the firings were in retaliation for their attempted personnel actions against two psychiatrists, Dr. Farid Karimi and Dr. Rajeev Chaturvedi. Neither psychiatrist is still at the regional center.

In July, Karimi named Werth-Sweeney as a defendant in his own federal lawsuit, along with the state, HHS and a different former medical director.

His suit alleged that Werth-Sweeney and the former medical director retaliated against him for reporting violations of state rules and regulations that affected the care of regional center patients.

In their lawsuit, Baker-Heser and Werth-Sweeney claimed that they were the subjects of retaliation over two issues.

First, they said, they had reported both psychiatrists for not complying with medical recordkeeping regulations. They said they had tried to enforce compliance, including attempting to fire or suspend the psychiatrists, but allegedly had been thwarted by HHS.

Second, they said, they had reported complaints that Karimi had allegedly harassed, intimidated and abused Werth-Sweeney, Baker-Heser and other female employees. They said HHS did not investigate or take remedial action.

As reported in The World-Herald, the regional center has been struggling with staff shortages that contribute to growing amounts of overtime costs, temporary staffing hours and employee turnover. Staffers also have been subject to a rising number of assaults and injuries.

Another issue arose recently, when judges ordered at least two Omaha-area teenagers to be placed at the adult facility, despite opposition from HHS and the lack of a youth treatment program. The placements raised alarm among child advocates.

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