Reporting from San Francisco — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposal for the University of California and its medical schools to manage healthcare for the state's prison inmates, including via the Internet, received significant criticism Thursday at a hearing before the university's regents.
Leaders of the union that represents current prison doctors were the most vocal opponents, warning that UC medical staff would face frequently violent patients, higher-than-expected costs and malpractice lawsuits challenging long-distance online diagnoses.
"The juxtaposition of these types of patients and an academic culture is going to be quite a shock," said Stuart Bussey, president of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, which represents more than 800 prison employees and might face job losses under the plan.
UC regent Sherry Lansing, who chairs the regents' committee on the issue, said the plan would be a "momentous" move and needed much study. "We are at the very, very beginning of exploring this proposal," she said.
Lansing said UC should aid the medically underserved and help reduce the state deficit but would not agree to the prison proposal unless it guaranteed revenue for UC's services. Also to be considered are less-dramatic options, such as possibly having UC doctors serve as advisors for the prison healthcare system.
In March, Schwarzenegger touted a report estimating that the change could save $12 billion over a decade. Besides telemedicine, the idea calls for a special hospital for chronically ill inmates, which could reduce overtime pay for prison staff to guard patients.
No representative of the governor spoke at Thursday's hearing at UC San Francisco. His office later released a statement saying that Schwarzenegger still supports the plan as "needed surgery on a broken and outdated system."
Besides agreement from UC regents, the proposal would need approval from the federal receiver who has overseen prison healthcare since 2006 in a court-ordered effort to improve care.
Scott Anderson, a physician who works at the prison medical facility in Vacaville, urged the regents to avoid managing prison hospitals and instead to start fellowships to train young doctors in inmates' care. He recalled assaults by prisoners on doctors and nurses. "There's a lot of anti-social behavior that's not going away no matter what we do to healthcare," he said.