A sales representative for the hospice and palliative care firm Vitas claims in a lawsuit that the company has endangered both its own employees and the staff and residents of Bay Area nursing homes during the coronavirus pandemic by presenting its sales as an "essential service."
Kristina Eisenacher of San Mateo claims that her supervisors at Vitas required her to enter health facilities to generate business even after the facilities had stopped letting family members enter to visit loved ones - and despite a recommendation from her doctor that she not do so because she may be especially susceptible to the coronavirus.
Eisenacher alleges in her lawsuit, filed June 16 in Alameda County Superior Court, that Vitas Healthcare, the nation's largest provider of end-of-life care, told her to get the doctor's recommendation reversed and then retaliated against her by putting her on unpaid leave.
"No paycheck is worth keeping your mouth shut when people's lives are at stake," Eisenacher said in an interview. "My stress has been substantial. But that is nothing compared to losing a loved one. I want Vitas to stop this and if that saves one person's life then what I have had to endure is worth it."
Kay Van Wey, Eisenacher's attorney, said that by March 13, long-term care facilities and hospitals had told Vitas that they were allowing only clinical staff to visit their facilities, but Vitas continued to tell its sales representatives to visit nursing homes in person.
In the complaint, Eisenacher alleges that Vitas has a robust online platform and that sales reps could work remotely.
Van Wey said Vitas sales reps entered six Bay Area health facilities after they were closed to nonessential visitors, including East Bay Post-Acute Healthcare Center in Castro Valley, Sunrise of Belmont in Belmont and The Ridge Post-Acute in San Jose.
About 200 to 250 sales representatives in California may have been in a situation similar to Eisenacher's, Van Wey said. She said she has been in touch with one other Vitas employee who confirmed Eisenacher's claims.
"We believe this is a national problem which warrants expansion of the case into other jurisdictions," Van Wey said.
Vitas confirmed in a statement on Wednesday that it classified the work of sales representatives as essential, saying they provide important information.
"Our representatives are critical to ensuring access to hospice care for health care partners, and thereby hospice-eligible patients, making them essential workers in the health care system," Vitas said in the statement. "Representatives work directly with health care 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."
The company said its policies "follow guidance provided by federal, CDC, state and local authorities with regard to the wellbeing of our staff."
Doctors have repeatedly said that even people without symptoms can carry the coronavirus and spread it.
Van Wey said state guidelines show Eisenacher's work was nonessential. The California Department of Public Health defines essential health care workers during the pandemic as those "required for effective clinical, command, infrastructure, support service, administrative, security and intelligence operations across the direct patient care and full health care and public health spectrum, including workers at long-term care facilities."
A spokesperson for the department declined to comment for this story because it involves pending litigation.
Based in Florida, Vitas operates in 14 states and the District of Columbia. In the Bay Area, Vitas has offices in Milpitas, San Francisco, San Mateo and Walnut Creek.
Eisenacher, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of herself and others in a similar situation and hopes it attains class action status, is seeking damages and a court order against Vitas.