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Texas Tries to Hire Incompetent Doctors to Review Medical Care

by Matthew T. Clarke

In October, 2002, Chancellor of the University of Texas (UT) System Mark Yudof asked Texas Health Commissioner Eduardo Sanchez to appoint a three-member panel of experts "with laudable records in correctional health care" and without ties to UT, UT Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston (which provides health care services to 80% of the 146,000 Texas prisoners) or the prison system to conduct an evaluation of prison health care. This was prompted by increasingly vocal concerns being voiced by prisoners, their families, prisoners' rights advocates, and public officials about the deterioration of prison health care. [See PLN, Dec. `02 and indexes for further information on this subject.]

Yudof gave Sanchez a list of possible candidates compiled by or with the assistance of UTMB officials. The list included Dr. Gail Williams, whose medical license has been revoked in two states and six other questionable doctors.

In 1985, the Michigan Board of Medicine revoked Williams's license and refused reinstatement requests in 1987, 1989 and 1990, after finding him guilty of having sex with a patient and fraudulently billing her insurance company by listing the sexual encounters as therapy. In 1990, Williams received a restricted Oklahoma license which allowed him to practice in a supervised setting and treat female patients if chaperoned, but lost that license and his job as chief of mental health services for the Oklahoma prison system after being accused of sexually battering and harassing a prison nurse and other female medical personnel. In 1994, Kansas refused to issue him a license, but Alabama gave him a restricted medical license, allowing him to become the "chief psychiatrist for the Alabama Department of Corrections," according to the UT list. Alabama officials say Williams works for two private contractors, not the state. The UT list did not mention Williams's past troubles.

Also on the list was Dr. Beltran Pages, whose Florida medical license was suspended for three years for sexually abusing a patient. Florida reinstated the license after three years, but restricted him to treating only men. UT's recommendation stated that Pages "had a significant tenure with the Florida Department of Corrections overseeing mental health services" before becoming chief of mental health services for the North Carolina Department of Correction. However, Florida prison records show that Pages had worked for just five years and departed as a senior unit physician.

UT also recommended Dr. Richard Garden, Utah State Prison's medical director. Garden received public warning for failing to properly treat and failing to properly supervise two physician assistants treating a 62-year old prisoner who died of pneumonia in 1998.

UT and Health Department officials admitted that they did not perform any background checks, but expressed surprise that doctors with past licensing problems came so highly recommended.

"I would have thought, given the titles and positions of some of these people, that their backgrounds would have been reviewed by their existing and current employers," said Dr. James Guckian, the UT System's acting executive vice chancellor for health affair, the official who oversees prison medical programs.

Four other candidates had ties to the UT System, UTMB, or the prison system: Dr. H. Mark Guidry, Houston regional public health director for the Texas Health Department and Dr. David A. Valdez, Aetna Insurance Company's medical director, both served for years on the Statewide Health Coordinating Council with the head of UTMB's prison health care program. Guidry graduated from UTMB in 1987; Valdez graduated from UT's Health Science Center in San Antonio. Dr. Charles E. Bell, the Health Department's executive deputy commissioner, graduated from UT's Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas in 1983. Dr. Steven Shelton, medical director for the Oregon Department of Corrections, is president-elect of the Society of Correctional Physicians, the treasurer for which is Dr. Lannette Linthicum, medical director for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Yudof says he assumed that the list would receive scrutiny, but Health department officials didn't see background checks as their responsibility.

"You can bet we'll be doing background checks on everyone now," said Doug McBride, Health Department spokesman.

Yolanda Torres, noted Texas attorney and authority on prison issues said, "it stinks for the people whose work is going to be reviewed to be suggesting the candidates."

Meredith Rountree, director of the Texas ACLU's Prison and Jail Accountability Project noted that it, "does not inspire any confidence that this report will be truly independent" and that "the prison health care system has some very serious problems that demand a top-notch and independent review."

Tom Smith, director of Public Citizen in Texas agreed. "It's analogous to Enron hiring an independent auditor and then choosing which auditors do the audit. It doesn't work," said Smith.

"Based on their performance so far, UT needs to back out of the selection process," said Suzy Woodfors, executive director of Common Cause Texas.

Rountree agreed and suggested that an independent national group such as the U. S. Justice Department's National Institute of Corrections, should compile the study or assist with it.

However, the state's plan is to repeat the same process by presenting a new list retaining only Shelton's name, underfund the study, spending a mere $30,000-$40,000 compared to over $400,000 price of a similar study done two years ago in the Ruiz lawsuit. Ironically, the state attacked the Ruiz study as inadequate to show the systemwide state of prisoner medical services.

Sources: Austin-American Statesman; Houston Chronicle; Ft. Worth Star-Telegram; Dallas Morning News; AP.

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