California prisons have paid doctors and mental health professionals accused of malpractice an estimated $8.7 million since 2006 to do no work at all or to perform menial chores like sorting mail, tossing out old medical supplies and reviewing inmate charts for clerical errors.
At least 30 medical professionals have collected their six-figure salaries for a cumulative 37 years in a kind of employment limbo after fellow doctors decided they were too dangerous to treat inmates but before the state’s lengthy discipline appeals process made a final decision on whether they should be fired, state records show.
Dr. Allan Yin, whose medical license was put on probation by the state Medical Board of because of incompetence and gross negligence in connection with the deaths of two patients and the near blinding of a third, received his $235,000 salary for more than a year and a half while performing such chores, records show.
“He actually functioned as, like, the mail courier. He delivered the institution’s mail,” said Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for California Correctional Health Care Services, the receiver in charge of the state’s troubled prison health system.
A federal court imposed the receivership in 2005 after ruling that prison healthcare was so bad that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Since then receivers have been trying to improve treatment — and bring down the high cost of disciplining doctors — by replacing poor performers with more qualified physicians.
Dr. Radu Mischiu, a psychiatrist accused of failing to keep notes on interviews with patients, including one inmate who killed himself, has not treated an inmate since February 2006, records show. His duties have included sorting inmate mail at Solano state prison in Vacaville.
“Obviously the system is broken,” said Mischiu, who earns $268,524. Mischiu said he is out on disability leave with a bad back but suspects he could be sorting mail again when he returns. “You put people on the sidelines but then you have to pay them millions. It’s ridiculous.”
The numbers provided by the receiver’s office in response to a Los Angeles Times public record request are partial owing to the prison system’s historically poor accounting for employee duties. Both the dollar amount and the total amount of time prison healthcare providers have been “redirected” could be significantly higher, Kincaid said.
“The whole reason this place is in receivership is that it was so badly broken,” Kincaid said, “and that includes the record keeping.”
Before prison healthcare fell under federal court control, doctors accused of incompetence were routinely sent home on paid leave for the duration of the internal investigation, which often took years. When the first receiver, Robert Sillen, realized he was paying such high salaries for people who were doing nothing, he ordered them back to work “even if they have to lick stamps,” Kincaid said.
That’s essentially what happened in Mischiu’s case.
After being sent out on paid leave in February 2006, he was ordered back and wound up working in “this huge warehouse where the mail and packages arrived,” Mischiu said. “They paid me a huge amount of money to sort mail,” he said in an interview last week.
When he started in the mail room doing work normally assigned to a clerk, his colleagues included another doctor, a couple of nurses and several prison guards, all under investigation on allegations of wrongdoing, Mischiu said.
He also spent a significant portion of his nearly six-year limbo reviewing medical charts to make sure doctors made appropriate notes — precisely what he was accused of failing to do.
Mischiu was eventually fired. But the State Personnel Board, which reviews disciplinary cases against civil servants, forgave his poor record keeping because of his extraordinary caseload. He and another psychiatrist were responsible for up to 1,600 mentally ill inmates at times. So the board ordered the prison system to rehire him, with back pay, in late 2009.
Even then, however, prison administrators kept him away from patients, Mischiu said. He earned his salary reviewing charts until he injured his back.
There are only two doctors being paid to stay away from patients now, one of whom was redirected in October for a disciplinary matter that has nothing to do with clinical competence. The other, Dr. William Savage, has not been allowed to treat patients for nearly four years, Kincaid said.
Confidentiality rules prohibit her from disclosing why Savage, who makes $248,172, has not been allowed to treat inmates, Kincaid said. Savage’s attorney, John D. Harwell, also would not say why he was reassigned.
State civil service rules have complicated current receiver J. Clark Kelso’s efforts to replace troubled doctors, several of whom have successfully appealed their firings to the personnel board.
Dr. Jeffrey Rohlfing was kept away from patients for six years. Reassigned in 2005 after a patient death, he was fired in 2007. But the State Personnel board ordered him rehired in 2009 with $541,683 in back pay. When he returned, he earned his $235,000 salary reviewing files in a storage room. He didn’t see his first patient until August of this year. He did not respond to a request for comment on this report.
Kelso has since asked the federal court for authority to hire independent physicians to review cases of doctors accused of clinical incompetence instead of relying on the judgment of civil servants who work for the personnel board and have no medical training.
The first doctor to come before the new panel, known as the Judicial Review Committee, was Yin. He’d been assigned to the mail room at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi after fellow prison doctors accused him of mistreating more than a dozen inmates, including two who died after he misdiagnosed their illnesses and a third who was nearly blinded, records show.
The review committee conceded that some of Yin’s treatment had been “suboptimal,” but ruled that his missteps were not serious enough to justify firing him. So they ordered the prison to rehire him, with $205,000 in back pay, in late 2009.
A year later, the State Medical Board, which licenses all doctors in California, issued a very different opinion. It found repeated evidence of incompetence and gross negligence in Yin’s care for the three patients.
By then Yin, 75, already had his job back. His attorney, Erin L. Muellenberg, persuaded the medical board to put his license on probation instead of revoking it. She called him a “very good doctor” and said the state’s disciplinary process is “very broken,” adding that the long delays leave doctors hanging for years.
There have been no reported problems with Yin’s treatment since he returned. That doesn’t mean the receiver is happy about the outcome or about the years for which Yin was paid to do very little.
“We fired him, we believe he should have remained fired,” Kincaid said. “But we lost that case.”