A California surgeon has mostly been locked out of his job: on paid leave, fired or fighting his termination. When he does work, it’s reviewing records. He made $777,000 last year, including back pay.
|A file photo of San Quentin State Prison. Dozens of prison doctors in California are reportedly paid to shuffle papers. (John G. Mabanglo / European Pressphoto Agency)
By Jack Dolan, Los Angeles Times
The highest-paid state employee in California last year, a prison surgeon who took home $777,423, has a history of mental illness, was fired once for alleged incompetence and has not been allowed to treat an inmate for six years because medical supervisors don’t trust his clinical skills.
Since July 2005, Dr. Jeffrey Rohlfing has mostly been locked out of his job — on paid leave or fired or fighting his termination — at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, state records show. When he has been allowed inside the facility, he has been relegated to reviewing paper medical histories, what prison doctors call “mailroom” duty.
Rohlfing’s $235,740 base pay, typical in California’s corrections system, accounted for about a third of his income last year. The rest of the money was back pay for more than two years when he did no work for the state while appealing his termination. A supervisor had determined that Rohlfing provided substandard care for two patients, according to state Personnel Board records.
Rohlfing won that case before the board and was rehired and assigned to “mailroom” work in late 2009.
“We want taxpayers to know we had no choice in this,” said Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for the court-appointed receiver in charge of California’s inmate healthcare. “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.”
Rohlfing, 65, could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Joseph Polockow, said his assignment is an attempt by prison officials to get him to quit.
“If you stick a doctor in a room for eight hours a day with no patients, you’re making it very hard on him and trying to drive him away,” Polockow said.
Rohlfing isn’t the only doctor in California’s cash-strapped prisons earning big money to shuffle paper. Dozens have been relegated to the chore in recent years, according to Kincaid, who said it’s the standard assignment given to physicians when questions arise about their clinical ability. Some eventually return to treating patients, some quit and others are ultimately fired, she added.
Last year, a prison doctor who was fired for letting his license expire and was later reinstated by the Personnel Board received $313,610 in back pay, records show. Another, fired for “extreme departure from the medically accepted standard of care,” was reinstated and collected $298,787 in lost wages. And a surgeon who had been fired, then put on three years’ probation, for missed diagnoses that led to the deaths of two inmates and treatment that robbed another inmate of vision, collected $193,779 in back pay.
California’s corrections system has a history of employing troubled doctors. When a federal court installed the receiver in 2006, judges noted that “20-50% of physicians at the prisons provided poor quality of care,” and 20% had a black mark on their record when hired. Their shortcomings contributed significantly to the fact that a prisoner died “needlessly” every six to seven days in a state lockup, the judges said.
Rohlfing’s difficulties date to at least 1996, when he suffered a psychiatric crisis while working at a hospital in Fresno, according to Medical Board of California records. After he engaged in “bizarre, irrational and delusional communications,” co-workers called police. Rohlfing fled when they arrived, led a car chase through the streets and was caught at his house.
Two involuntary 72-hour commitments to psychiatric wards followed. The medical board, which licenses all doctors in California, placed Rohlfing on probation for five years, the board’s records show.
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