An investigation by federal employee rights authorities has prompted the Hennepin Healthcare system to halt age-related screenings of its older medical practitioners.

The settlement announced Thursday by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with the county-owned health care provider calls for nine staff members to be reimbursed for out-of-pocket costs associated with the exams that were not covered by insurance, said the agency, which had been conducting its investigation under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment and Americans with Disabilities acts.

Eight of the nine received $1,000, while one received $1,120, said Cherie Doak, director of the EEOC's Minneapolis area office. The money, in some cases, also covered costs associated with "inconveniences, and emotional pain and suffering."

Doak said the EEOC sent out "a large number of questionnaires to try and locate" practitioners age 70 and older who may have been subjected to the exams but received only nine responses.

Despite the small response, she added, "there were likely many more individuals subject to the exam, but we were only able to confirm the nine."

Doak said Hennepin Healthcare in mid-April voluntarily ended the "Late Career Practitioner" screenings of doctors, nurses and nurse practitioners.

The exams were for "cognitive assessment and fitness for duty," Doak said, adding that they were not specifically designed for older subjects.

Hennepin Healthcare spokeswoman Christine Hill said the screenings were initiated in 2016 "for cognitive decline that might impact patient care."

However, Hill declined to offer any examples of the screenings benefiting patient care in the roughly four years of the policy's existence.

Doak said that "inquiries from the general public" to the EEOC in June 2018 brought the policy to the agency's attention.

Under the settlement, Hennepin Healthcare also agreed for the next three years to provide periodic reporting to the EEOC of any age-related complaints, unlawful medical inquiries or retaliation related to such complaints.

"We appreciate [Hennepin Healthcare's] willingness to proactively tackle this issue once it was brought to its attention," Doak said.

There are "Late Career Practitioner" policies in place across the country. Fisher Phillips, a nationwide workplace law firm based in Houston, said that as of May 2020, several hospital systems have adopted such requirements, including the University of Virginia Health System, Stanford Hospital and Clinics, and Driscoll Children's Hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Along with Hennepin Healthcare, the EEOC has gone after others as recently as last February, when it filed a complaint against Yale New Haven Hospital.

"Healthcare providers should think twice before implementing late-career practitioner policies based solely on age," Fisher Phillips' Megan U'Sellis wrote in an online analysis. "Given the absence of high-quality data demonstrating that aging physicians generate more errors and adverse patient outcomes than their younger counterparts, any policy compelling mandatory retirement or screening at a certain age could be challenged as discriminatory."

However, U'Sellis went on to caution, "This is not to say that hospitals should let physician competency go unchecked. Instead, you should apply such screenings on an individualized basis and regardless of age, i.e., where there is a reasonable belief that the physician's faculties are compromised in some regard."

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482