UK dentist files whistleblower lawsuit

A University of Kentucky College of Dentistry faculty member has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging that UK officials fired him after he publicly criticized Gov. Matt Bevin’s Medicaid waiver proposal.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday by Dr. Raynor Mullins of Lexington also alleges that the comments annoyed Bevin and administration officials, who pressured UK to get rid of him. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, is against Mark Birdwhistell, UK’s vice president of administration for UK HealthCare; Stephanos Kyrkanides, dean of the UK College of Dentistry; and “John Doe,” described as an official in the Bevin administration.

The lawsuit alleges that Mullins, 74, a former chair of the department of community dentistry and 40-year veteran of dental public health who also worked at the UK Center for Oral Health Research, made public comments along with four colleagues in July 2016 that were critical of the proposal to roll back parts of the Medicaid expansion made under the Affordable Care Act during former Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration. At the time, Mullins was employed as emeritus faculty, via a post-retirement appointment. His attorney, Joe Childers, said that appointment did not include any tenure protection. The other signers of the comments were either retired or current tenured professors.

Bevin’s proposal — which is still under consideration by federal officials — would raise premiums and create job requirements for recipients of the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, which provided 400,000 people with insurance, reducing the state’s uninsured population from 20 percent to 7.5 percent. Bevin said the changes were necessary for financial sustainability.

“Our professional opinion is that the design of Kentucky Health clearly does not fulfill the states access objectives and intent of CMS Medicaid waivers or the Affordable Care Act, but instead adds additional jeopardy to the already poor oral health and general health metrics of the Kentucky population,” the comments said.

Mullins notified Birdwhistell and Kyrkanides that he had submitted the comments during the open comment period. The comments were later posted online by “Save Kentucky Healthcare,” a group led by former Gov. Beshear.

The lawsuit says that Mullins believes Bevin and/or officials in his administration “communicated their displeasure with Dr. Mullins’ public comments to Defendant Birdwhistell, and pressured Defendant Birdwhistell to retaliate against Dr. Mullins and the UK College of Dentistry.

“Upon information and belief, on or about July 2016, Governor Bevin, Defendant Birdwhistell, and/or officials in the Bevin administration, including John Doe, telephone Defendant Kyrkanides while he was vacationing in Greece, and communicated their displeasure with Dr. Mullins’ public comments to Defendant Kyrkanides,” the lawsuit says. “Upon information and belief, the caller (s) also pressured Defendant Kyrkanides to retaliate against Dr. Mullins.”

By August, the lawsuit says, Kyrkanides had told Dr. Mullins he needed to go “off the radar” and keep a low profile. The lawsuit alleges that Kyrkanides notified other College of Dentistry officials that he got a call from the governor’s office and he had to “figure out how to get rid of Raynor Mullins.”

Through the fall of 2016, the lawsuit alleges that Kyrkanides informed Mullins’ colleagues they could not longer work with him on funded projects. Mullins then notified UK’s Office of Institutional Equity that he was being retaliated against because of his comments. But Mullins said he was never notified of the investigation’s conclusions.

In January 2017, Mullins was notified that his post-retirement appointment would not be renewed with the College of Dentistry and by June, his employment was completely terminated.

Mullins and Childers filed the lawsuit Wednesday in federal court in Lexington. In a brief public statement, Mullins said it was a difficult decision to sue the institution where he had worked for so many years.

“For over a year the concerns in my complaint have heavily impacted me, several colleagues and my family,” Mullins said. “What I experienced has no place in our state or in our land grant university … The need now is to inject transparency in the rays of bright sunlight on what has occurred.”

The lawsuit says that the defendants harmed Mullins’ constitutionally protected speech and violated his civil rights. Mullins is asking for punitive and compensatory damages in the case. Childers said they have witnesses to confirm some of the lawsuit’s points and will seek others through discovery and depositions, including the identity of John Doe.

Bevin’s communications director, Amanda Stamper, cast a political light on the conflict.

“Neither Governor Bevin, nor anybody else in the governor’s office, knows the plaintiff or has any knowledge about the allegations detailed in the media’s coverage of this case,” Stamper said. “We doubt it’s a coincidence that both the plaintiff and his lawyer are political donors and supporters of Steve and Andy Beshear.”

UK officials said they had just received the lawsuit and had no comment.

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