published Monday, February 3rd, 2014

Hamilton County ends health department 'race to the bell' policy

Hamilton County has put the brakes on a health department customer service policy that was highlighted in a $180,000 lawsuit the county settled last month.

County commissioners voted in January to pay $180,000 to Nancy Beckham, a health department public health nurse the county fired in February 2012. The payment settled a wrongful termination lawsuit she filed in September 2012.

According to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department clinic where Beckham worked had a "race to the bell" policy, in which nurses had to respond to new patients when a bell rang.

Because Beckham has rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease, she was unable to walk as quickly as the other nurses, so she saw fewer patients on average, the lawsuit claimed.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said Friday the policy no longer is practiced at any of the county's health clinics.

Taylor said there was no foul on the county's part in the Beckham case, and that the settlement was purely an economic decision.

He said the county never called the policy a "race to the bell." It was simply a way to alert nurses to new patients.

"The major issue about that case did not involve the 'race to the bell,'" Taylor said. "That bell issue was a minor portion of the work itself. Most of those nurses operate on a scheduled basis. That was always one of [Beckham and her attorney's] major contentions, but it is not ours."

Still, Beckham's attorney, Donna Mikel, said in the suit that a slower response was central to her client's alleged low work performance.

According to American Nurses Association spokesman Jemarion Jones, there is no nationally known bell policy similar to the one described in the lawsuit.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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