Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Take That, Robert Rizzo: Jeffrey Rohlfing Makes Case for Being Most Overpaid California State Employee

Last week, Controller John Chiang released data on the compensation packages given to employees of the state government. The news that over 1,400 state employees, primarily medical professionals in the prisons and mental health services, were making over $200,000 a year led us to point to the report as yet another reason why Californians don't need higher taxes. We also criticized Chiang for withholding the names associated with these pay packages. In particular, we wondered about the mystery doctor whose compensation of over $777,000 last year made him the state's highest-paid employee. Well, the LA Times has the solved the mystery.

The lucky winner of the bloated-government-spending lottery is a prison physician named Jeffrey Rohlfing. His base pay of roughly $236,000 is about normal for doctors in the California corrections system. The additional $541,000 in compensation, however, is where it gets interesting. Apparently, Rohlfing has not been allowed to treat inmates at High Desert State Prison in Susanville for six years; between July 2006 and late 2009, he was either on paid leave, out of a job after being fired for incompetence, or appealing his firing. When he won his case before the prison board and was rehired, he was assigned to so-called "mailroom" duty reviewing patient medical histories. The additional compensation, it seems, was back pay the prison awarded him for the two years in which he did no work for the state while fighting his termination. According to Nancy Kincaid, spokeswoman for the receiver directing inmate health care, "We want taxpayers to know we had no choice in this. 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."

Unfortunately, Rohlfing's case is hardly an isolated incident. The Times notes the story of a prison doctor who was fired for letting his medical license expire, who received $313,610 in back pay when he was reinstated. Another physician fired for "extreme departure from the medically accepted standard of care" got almost $300,000 in back pay after being rehired. A surgeon fired for missed diagnoses that led to multiple deaths and the blinding of one patient? Rehired on probation, and then fully reinstated with $194,000 in back pay. Moreover, the prison system's history of employing incompetent and/or mentally ill doctors seems likely to produce these results. Before having his clinical privileges revoked for providing substandard care at High Desert Prison, Rohlfing had experienced significant psychiatric problems; in 1996, he was involuntarily committed on two occasions, and was put on a five-year probation by the state medical board. He began practicing at High Desert while still on probation.

These problems are in addition to the prisons' habit of ignoring rules prohibiting retiring workers to cash out more than 80 hours in unused vacation and sick time. Such awards are responsible for many other cases of compensation packages far in excess of normal salary.

Reason's take on the Times report is here.

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