Editorial: DHEC needs to explain TB firing

July 5, 2013 

Tuberculosis, a lung disease once thought eradicated in the U.S., has flared up in the town of Ninety Six, where school children were infected, allegedly, by a school janitor earlier this year.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — kkfoster@thestate.com Buy Photo

“Although you were advised by Central Office TB (tuberculosis) staff not to follow up on TB testing on the group of students at the school, it was still your decision on whether or not further testing should be done. Despite the high rate, you decided to continue the process and not expand testing to the students.”

— termination letter to DHEC program manager Malinda Martin

IT IS ALL TOO common for people who are fired for good reason to make up bad reasons for losing their jobs, either as the basis of a lawsuit or merely to answer friends’ questions. So we should always be skeptical of allegations that people were wrongfully fired.

Even when the allegations are true, they rarely invoke important public policy questions; more often, an improper firing has no implications beyond the individual who was fired and whoever fired her.

But the allegations in Malinda Martin’s lawsuit against the Department of Health and Environmental Control are much more serious and far-reaching than that.

It might very well be true, as DHEC Director Catherine Templeton has said, that students at Greenwood County’s Ninety-Six Primary School already had been exposed to tuberculosis by the time health officials found out about it this spring, and that testing them sooner would not have made a difference. But obviously the failure to conduct those tests was a problem if that was the basis for firing Ms. Martin and two colleagues.

More importantly, if the Kafkaesque termination letter is legitimate and it is true that Ms. Martin was fired precisely for doing what she asked to do and was told not to do, then there has been egregious misconduct somewhere in DHEC.

If true, these allegations go far beyond scapegoating, and point to a cover up that allowed people to go unpunished for making reckless decisions involving the public health. To date, 53 children have tested positive for the presence of the TB germ, and 10 have abnormal chest X-rays, which indicate they have the disease.

If true, the allegations mean that either Ms. Templeton was lied to by subordinates — in which case those subordinates should be fired immediately — or else that she set out to mislead the public, in which case the DHEC board should remove her immediately.

So far, DHEC has done nothing to refute the allegations, saying it can’t comment on a pending lawsuit. Yes, we understand that this is the common response by any officials — in government, business or private organizations — when they are sued.

But this is too important a matter for us to wait for a civil lawsuit to play out. The finger-pointing between Ms. Templeton and Greenwood school officials over whose fault it is that parents weren’t notified sooner about the outbreak already has raised questions about the agency’s ability to coordinate responses to public health emergencies, and shaken public confidence. We need answers now and, depending on what those answers are, action.

DHEC officials need to come forward with evidence to refute Ms. Martin’s allegation that she was the one who raised the alarm about these cases, that she was made a scapegoat when public outrage mounted over the outbreak and the agency’s response to it, that she was fired for refusing to violate the law. And if they can’t at least offer a reasonable explanation, then someone higher up than Ms. Martin needs to go.

If DHEC instead continues to hide behind the “can’t comment on a pending lawsuit” dodge, then someone else in state government — perhaps the inspector general or the attorney general — needs to investigate these allegations and make their findings public, so that appropriate action can be taken.

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