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Inflating Low Fees : Setup for Paying Jail Doctors Spurs Inquiry

Times Staff Writer

Spurred by an audit showing that doctors in San Diego County jails have been paid tens of thousands of dollars for hours they did not work, county officials plan to examine other county contracts to ensure that similar arrangements do not exist elsewhere.

Although top county administrators expressed doubt Monday that any comparable payroll problems exist in other departments, they acknowledged that a county auditor’s report showing that the jails’ three doctors received nearly $100,000 in salary and benefits for time not worked during the last fiscal year points up the need for a thorough review of county programs.

“There are regular checks and audits, but in any large organization, some things inevitably are going to fall between the cracks,” said David Janssen, the county’s assistant chief administrative officer. “We have a good system. But you can’t catch everything.”

Policy Changed

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County administrators characterized the 24-year-old policy under which the doctors were paid as being ill-advised but not illegal, but they said no employees will be disciplined and they will not seek repayment of funds.

The payment policy was changed last summer because of the audit, and doctors in county jails now are paid only for the hours they work.

The policy, begun in 1965, created a quasi-retainer for doctors who provided part-time medical services in the jails while maintaining their private practices, county officials said. Feeling that the county’s maximum salary--$6.51 an hour in 1965--was too low to attract doctors, county officials decided to pay the physicians for more hours than they actually worked, establishing what they considered to be a more equitable salary.

“It wasn’t right, but we did it for years because that’s the way it had always been done,” said Cmdr. John Galt, head of the Sheriff’s Department jail support bureau. “At the time it started, the problem we faced was, where do you find a doctor who’s willing to come in at 7 in the morning a few days a week for $6 an hour? This was a way to make it halfway worth their while.”

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Because most county records are destroyed after two years, it is impossible to estimate how much doctors were paid over the years for time not worked, according to Christopher Gilmore, head of the audit division of the county auditor and controller’s office. However, the $100,000 figure found in the 1987-88 fiscal year audit suggests that the 24-year total could reach seven figures.

Salary and Benefits

According to the audit and county payroll records, dentist Philip Burgess was paid an average of $22.83 per hour for 20 hours weekly last year, even though he worked only about five hours a week. Similarly, Dr. Jules Frank was paid for 38 hours a week at $26.44 per hour while working only about eight hours weekly, and Dr. Merrit Matthews, who only worked 12 hours per week, was paid the same hourly rate for 25 hours weekly.

Each of the three doctors also received fringe benefits valued at roughly a fourth of his salary. As a result, the amount that the county paid last year in salary and benefits for time not worked totaled about $52,000 for Frank and $22,000 each for both Burgess and Matthews.

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The inflated time sheets were filled out, not by the doctors themselves, but by jail administrators acting in accord with the longstanding policy, county auditors found. Janssen, however, explained that an informal opinion from the county counsel’s office determined that there was no criminal intent in that arrangement. Therefore, no legal or administrative action will be taken against any of the principals, he added.

For the same reason, the county apparently has no legal grounds for seeking repayment for the time not worked, Janssen said.

Burgess, who had worked for the county for about 3 1/2 years, stopped providing dental services in the jails shortly after the county changed its policy so that doctors were paid only for hours worked, jail administrator Galt said. Frank, who had worked for the county since the policy began in 1965, retired last week, but will work in the jails about 10 hours weekly at $26.44 per hour, under a special three-month contract. Matthews, who has worked for the county since 1976, will continue to work 20 hours weekly at the same hourly rate.

Focus on Problem

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The major problem highlighted by the audit, Galt argued, has more to do with how the doctors were paid than with how much they were paid.

“We’re not very competitive, salary-wise, as it is,” Galt said. “This (policy) was a way of trying to attract professionals who probably wouldn’t have bothered with this kind of work otherwise. . . . Still, it would have been better to just pay them under a simple contract--X dollars for X amount of work--all along.”


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