VA hospital ordered to reinstate advocate for IMGs

Implementation of the EEOC ruling is suspended pending a decision on the Fargo VA medical center's appeal.

By Beth Wilson, amednews correspondent — Posted Aug. 1, 2005

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The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently ruled that the Dept. of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Fargo, N.D., must reinstate a physician who said he was fired in retaliation for advocating for colleagues working through the H1-B visa program.

Under the decision, which the VAMC is appealing, Rudranath Talukdar, MD, should receive his former position with back pay following his 2002 dismissal.

Dr. Talukdar, who assisted an investigation into whether the VAMC was underpaying H1-B physicians, was terminated after the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Dept. of Labor ordered the medical center to pay more than $200,000 in back wages to 10 physicians using work visas.

Under H-1B visas, employers can hire nonimmigrant doctors who are not U.S. citizens for set periods. However, the law makes it clear that those employees must be paid the same as a U.S. citizen. The government does that to "protect U.S. workers' " wages by removing any potential economic incentive to hire temporary foreign workers over U.S. citizens.

Dr. Talukdar, who worked as an internist at the hospital, claims he was fired in retaliation, but the hospital said it did not renew Dr. Talukdar's temporary assignment as staff physician because of a budget deficit.

Dr. Talukdar and psychiatrist Harjinder K. Virdee, MD, who also aided in the government investigation and was then terminated, filed a complaint with the Dept. of Labor alleging that they had been fired for cooperating with the investigation. That is illegal under whistle-blower protections.

Dept. of Labor Administrative Law Judge Alice M. Craft in April 2004 ruled that the doctors should be reinstated with back pay. The VAMC is appealing that decision as well.

Damage done

The process has taken its toll on both doctors.

"It has been devastating," said Dr. Talukdar, who sought professional help for depression after his dismissal.

Dr. Talukdar, who is completing a fellowship in oncology at East Tennessee State University Quillen College of Medicine, said the legal battle hurt his family, career and financial security.

His wife lives in Houston, and he cannot afford legal representation or a car. He said he rides his bicycle to work.

Dr. Virdee, meanwhile, set up private practice in Fargo, N.D., and her husband, who also worked at the VAMC, took a position elsewhere.

"It's very damaging for a physician who stood up for what is right," said Dr. Virdee, who lost her case with the EEOC but is appealing. "It's a very lengthy process, one that is very difficult to endure. By the time it gets straightened out there's so much damage already."

Dr. Talukdar remains determined and is encouraged by the EEOC ruling.

"I was ecstatic," he said of the decision, adding, "I'm a very patient man. However long it takes, I'll be there."

The director of the medical center, Douglas Kenyon, who was ordered by the EEOC to take eight hours of equal opportunity training, declined comment.

Implementation of all facets of the EEOC order is suspended pending a decision on the appeal.

Margaret Wheelden, a spokeswoman for the center, said hospital officials are advised not to comment on the case while it is under appeal.

It is inappropriate to discriminate against any physician because of national origin or geographical location of medical education, according to American Medical Association policy.

Bernd Wollschlaeger, MD, chair of the AMA International Medical Graduates section, said he is concerned that other international medical graduates working with H1-B visas may be underpaid as well.

"I can't imagine this is a single case," he said. "This practice may be widespread; how widespread I can't assess at this time."

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