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California Prison Doctors Accused of Misconduct Get Paid to Shuffle Paperwork, Deliver Mail

Unable to take decisive action due to state civil service protections, California’s prison system is saddled with the expense of paying the salaries of dozens of physicians who have been deemed unfit to treat patients. Such doctors typically receive base salaries of more than $200,000; unwilling to accept the risk of allowing them to provide medical care, however, supervisors relegate them to desk duty where, according to a July 2011 Los Angeles Times article, they are paid for doing little or no work.

One of those physicians, Dr. Jeffrey Rohlfing, 65, employed at the High Desert State Prison, took home $777,423 in 2010, making him the highest-paid state employee in California. A surgeon with a history of mental illness who reportedly engaged in “bizarre, irrational and delusional communications,” Rohlfing has not been allowed to treat patients since July 2005, following the death of a prisoner under his care that led to the revocation of his clinical privileges.

Dr. Rohlfing was fired in 2007 after a review of his cases led a supervisor to conclude that he had provided “significantly substandard” medical treatment to two other prisoners. After appealing his termination to the state’s Personnel Board, Rohlfing was reinstated in 2009.

Now pulling “mailroom duty,” Dr. Rohlfing has been assigned to a retraining program. Roughly two-thirds of his 2010 take-home salary was back pay for the more than two years he spent fighting his termination.

Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for the court-appointed federal Receiver in charge of California’s prisoner medical care, said, “If you are ordered to bring somebody back to work, and you can’t trust them with patients, you have to find something for them to do.”
But, she hastened to add, “We want taxpayers to know we had no choice in this.”

The Receiver was appointed in 2006 after a federal judge found that “20-50% of physicians at the prisons provided poor quality of care” and, as a consequence, a prisoner died due to “preventable” causes every five to six days. [See: PLN, Sept. 2008, p.18; March 2006, p.1]. A three-judge court ultimately concluded that the level of medical care provided to California prisoners violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and that the Receiver would be unable to raise the level of care to constitutional standards unless prison overcrowding was first reduced.

That conclusion, in turn, was appealed by California state officials to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was upheld by a 5-4 majority in Brown v. Plata, 131 S.Ct. 1910 (2011) [PLN, July 2011, p.1].

Judging from Kincaid’s comments, there is some tension between the Receiver’s mission to increase the quality of medical care provided to California prisoners on the one hand, and the prison system’s track record of hiring less-than-qualified doctors (such as Rohlfing) on the other. This tension is exacerbated by Personnel Board decisions, which, in the Receiver’s view, do not adequately take into account the best interests of the prisoner-patients. The result is that dozens of prison doctors whose clinical skills can no longer be trusted – but who cannot be fired – are earning large salaries by sitting behind desks shuffling paperwork.

PLN previously reported on one of those physicians, Dr. Allan J.T. Yin, whose negligence led to the deaths of two prisoners. [See: PLN, May 2011, p.28]. Yin was fired, placed on probation for 35 months by the state Medical Board, reinstated and paid over $193,000 in back pay while delivering mail at the facility where he was assigned.

In another case, Dr. Radu Mischiu, a prison psychiatrist, was put on desk duty in February 2006 after he allegedly failed to keep notes of interviews with his patients, including a prisoner who committed suicide. Fired and then reinstated, he is paid more than $268,000 a year to sort mail at CSP Solano.

According to the Los Angeles Times, California prison officials have paid at least 30 doctors and mental health professionals accused of misconduct an estimated $8.7 million since 2006, while prohibiting them from providing medical care to prisoners.

Sources: Los Angeles Times, Daily Pilot

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