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Prisons Fail to Heal Healthcare

Disclosures of doctors' spotty backgrounds point to a state system still in crisis, a lawmaker declares. A hearing is scheduled for today.

September 29, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Nearly three years after California prison officials vowed to make major improvements in inmates' medical care, the state is facing new criticism that many of its doctors are incompetent, leading to costly lawsuits and, at times, deaths.

Documents obtained by The Times show that one in five prison doctors has been disciplined by the California Medical Board or sued for malpractice -- a rate almost five times that found statewide.

Some physicians working behind bars have histories of criminal convictions, cocaine or alcohol addiction and a loss of privileges at hospitals, records show.

One doctor, now working at the state prison in Susanville, was treated for a psychotic disorder that prompted him to lead police on a chase through the streets of Fresno. He was ordered by the medical board to complete five years' probation after a psychiatrist declared: "He cannot practice medicine safely."

The disclosures are to be discussed by two state senators at a Capitol hearing today. Questions are also likely to surface about the June death of a Bay Area inmate whose family believes he was a victim of inept care.

Anthony Shumake, 41, died six days after a dentist under contract with a Vacaville prison extracted a wisdom tooth. An infection created an abscess and swelling in the neck, making it difficult for Shumake to breathe. A San Joaquin County coroner's report said he died because the abscess constricted his airway.

Shumake's family wants to know why he was driven to a hospital in Manteca -- a 75-mile ambulance ride -- rather than to a facility in Vacaville, where he was serving a 12-year term for spousal abuse and stalking. Corrections officials will not comment until an internal investigation is completed.

State Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said Shumake's death and statistics about doctors' spotty records illustrate a system in crisis.

"It's appalling," said Speier, who has joined Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) in investigating the troubled prison system. "In addition to causing tragedies for inmates, this incompetence leads to lawsuits that cost taxpayers even more."

Today's hearing on medical care adds another dimension to what has been a difficult year for the youth and adult prison system. Despite new leadership and a governor who says he is committed to reforming corrections, the state has weathered allegations of inmate abuse, corruption and other scandals that have prompted a federal judge to threaten a takeover of California's 32 adult prisons.

The disclosures about doctors come as healthcare costs are soaring. This year, the Department of Corrections will spend more than $900 million treating 164,000 convicts, accounting for 20% of the prison budget. Care is provided by 302 staff doctors, whose annual salaries average $177,000, as well as scores of physicians who work under contract with the state.

Corrections officials acknowledged that previous hiring practices failed to screen out some problem doctors, and that managers at each prison had their own, often inadequate standards.

"We really had various fiefdoms in the 32 institutions," said Dr. Renee Kanan, acting chief of healthcare. Instead of seeking versatile physicians with a background in primary care medicine, managers hired doctors who simply met the state's minimum qualifications, she said. But recently, "we've raised the bar," she said. Now the state requires applicants to undergo thorough screening and a test of their abilities.

In addition, the department agreed last week to a court order that will subject every prison doctor to a rigorous evaluation by outside experts to determine whether they are competent. Physicians with minor shortcomings would be given remedial training, while those who fail could be fired. Kanan said she expects some doctors will flunk, but could not predict how many.

She would not provide a cost estimate, because negotiations are still underway with UC San Diego, the likely testing site. An aide to Speier, however, said the first phase of screening would cost at least $1.5 million, not counting any supplemental training.

The order for testing doctors was issued by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson. It was prompted by a July report from a team of medical experts who told Henderson that visits to half a dozen prisons revealed "an emerging pattern of inadequate and seriously deficient physician quality."

Among other problems, the experts said, doctors were placed in positions for which they were not qualified. "Thus, an incompetent anesthesiologist or a retired neurosurgeon can be hired to see patients for diabetes or coronary heart disease, conditions that they have never been trained to treat," the report said.

Henderson is overseeing the settlement of a 2001 lawsuit alleging that medical care in prisons was so poor that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Under the settlement, the state agreed to phase in a new healthcare delivery system by 2008.

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