The country's largest hospice provider, Vitas Healthcare, is being sued by an employee for violating stay-at-home orders mandating nonessential sales representatives continue conducting business inside nursing homes potentially putting frontline workers, elderly patients and their own lives at risk for exposure to COVID-19 amid the pandemic, court papers show.
Kristina Eisenacher, a customer sales representative from San Mateo, California, is suing the for-profit hospice company on behalf of herself and fellow sales representatives. The complaint, filed on June, 16, alleges her employer, Vitas Healthcare, required its sales representatives to make in-person sales calls to nursing homes, long-term care facilities and hospitals to sell non-urgent hospice services after the Bay Area issued a shelter in place order on March, 17. Sales reps are still entering the high-risk facilities, the suit says.
There are approximately 30 sales representatives in the Bay Area and 150 to 200 salespeople throughout California, the court documents show. Vitas' sales representatives were allegedly told they were “essential” and were required to continue making in-person sales calls, bringing in food, drinks, and other sales perks to healthcare facilities despite lockdown orders.
Vitas also allegedly encouraged sales representatives to “skirt entry checkpoints at hospitals posing as hospital employees,” the complaint says. And sales representatives were told to visit multiple facilities throughout the day potentially increasing COVID-19 exposure for patients and healthcare workers, court papers show.
When Eisenacher complained about the workplace policy and the public health issues, she alleges Vitas put her on unpaid leave “refusing to send her leads necessarily to make sales safely from her home,” the complaint says.
“We believe this is a very serious health threat to their [Vitas] employees, their sales team, frontline healthcare workers and our most vulnerable citizens, nursing home residents and we would like for them to stop,” Eisenacher's attorney, Kay Van Wey, told FOX Business. “We believe that it was improper, illegal and dangerous for them to try to bootstrap their status as an essential healthcare company to take non-essential workers who were delivering non-essential health services."
Sales representatives visited more than a dozen facilities statewide and entered at least five nursing homes in the Alameda County area, the suit states.
Vitas said in a statement it does not publicly share information about individual employees.
"Our representatives are critical to ensuring access to hospice care for healthcare partners, and thereby hospice-eligible patients, making them essential workers in the healthcare system," Dr. Joseph Shega, senior vice president and chief medical officer at Vitas Healthcare told FOX Business in a statement.
"Representatives work directly with healthcare partners to educate them on and support hospice care transitions that ensure patients are receiving the right care in the most appropriate setting, regardless of condition or diagnosis," Shega said.
Nursing homes have been among the hardest-hit during the deadly pandemic. There have been more than 250,000 novel coronavirus infection cases among residents and employees at long-term care facilities and 50,919 deaths according to data from the Wall Street Journal, which found senior home care buildings have been linked to more than 40 percent of deaths during the outbreak. There have been 122,238 deaths from COVID-19 as of Thursday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The Centers for Disease Control in March required nursing homes to restrict visitors and non-essential employees, screen anyone upon entering the facility, prohibit staff from traveling to multiple facilities, wear personal protective equipment and practice social distancing.
Advocates for the elderly have blamed the federal government for not providing enough personal protective equipment and sufficient COVID-19 virus testing to ensure nursing homes can operate safely.