118 Government Doctors Punished

April 14, 2002

By MATT KELLEY, Associated Press Writer

News & Links

America's Veterans

WASHINGTON - More than 100 federal government doctors have been convicted of crimes or disciplined by state medical boards, including one physician now treating veterans who was convicted of helping a terrorist group, an Associated Press review of medical licenses has found. Federal agencies are required to check the backgrounds of doctors they employ but are not prohibited from hiring those with criminal records, revoked licenses or medical punishments. All a doctor needs is a medical license valid in one state to get a government job.

Dr. Suzy Melkonian, who is paid $48 an hour as a blood cancer specialist at a Veterans Affairs hospital in Los Angeles, was convicted 21 years ago in Switzerland of extorting money for a group that staged terrorist bombings and assassinations. Melkonian was reprimanded five years ago by California for failing to disclose her Swiss conviction when applying for a medical license. Despite Melkonian's conviction, VA managers believed her training and patient care were good and "she'd be a qualified member of our staff," said Dr. Dean Norman, chief of staff for the Los Angeles VA hospital.

An AP review of medical board disciplinary records identified at least 118 federal doctors who have worked for the government in the past two years who were convicted of crimes or punished by state authorities for offenses ranging from sex and drug abuse to incompetence. Three of those doctors have been fired in recent months, including one whose conviction for attempted child molestation should have legally barred him from getting his job, and two who had relapses of conduct that prompted earlier punishments.

In all, 0.5 percent of the more than 20,800 doctors employed by the government have been convicted of crimes or punished, the records showed. Nationally, the rate is 2.6 percent. But advocates say the government's choice of doctors should be better than the public at large, particularly because federal physicians serve the vulnerable, the underprivileged and those who fought to keep the country safe.

"How many times do we have to get screwed over? Nobody seems to care all that much," said Sherri Siegle, a Choctaw nurse who worked for the Indian Health Service. Siegle said she checked the backgrounds of doctors at her Oklahoma hospital after seeing them make mistakes, and found several who had been previously punished.

Fourteen punished doctors currently work for IHS. Punished federal physicians have treated veterans, soldiers, American Indians, astronauts and federal prisoners. They also have researched drug safety, investigated new addiction treatments and acted as agency medical advisers.

They include:

At least 5 reprimanded for neglecting patients who died; 11 convicted criminals, including doctors who ordered child pornography, defrauded Medicaid and stole drugs from the VA; 18 punished for sexual misconduct, including a doctor disciplined for having sex with five patients; 37 punished for drug violations, including three whose drug use forced them to leave surgeries and three federal prison doctors who now treat prisoners for drug abuse and other ailments; the majority - 75 - work for the VA, the largest federal health care agency.

Some veterans' groups want VA Secretary Anthony Principi to investigate. "If this is true - and these are some serious allegations - I assume the secretary will do something about it," said Dick Flanagan, a spokesman for the group AMVETS.

Federal officials acknowledge screening processes are not always thorough. Dr. Thomas Craig, the VA's chief medical officer, said overworked hospital officials sometimes can miss problems or fail to check a doctor's background thoroughly. The VA has a new computer system to assist background checks. Melkonian and other punished doctors said they told supervisors about their pasts.

Melkonian was convicted in 1981 of extorting about $6,000 from a Swiss businessman to help the now-defunct Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia, according to California medical board records and news reports. ASALA, identified by the U.S. government as a terrorist group, claimed credit for scores of bombings and assassinations, mostly of Turkish targets. Melkonian was arrested in 1980 after an explosion in her Geneva hotel room led police to discover a partly assembled bomb. Afterward, ASALA and a splinter group began a bombing campaign aimed at freeing her and an ASALA leader.

Melkonian denied being a member of the terrorist group. The Swiss court convicted her of extortion, gave her an 18-month suspended sentence and expelled her. "These events have nothing whatsoever to do with my practice of medicine, "Melkonian, 46, said in a written statement. She attended medical school in Chicago after leaving Switzerland.

The California Medical Board reprimanded Melkonian in 1997 for failing to and was sentenced to two years' probation and a $1,500 fine, according to Pennsylvania and Ohio medical board and court records. He declined comment.

Dr. Robert H. Gerner, whose California license was suspended for 60 days in 1994 for having sex with a patient during psychotherapy sessions, now makes more than $52 per hour at the VA hospital in Los Angeles. Norman, the hospital's chief of staff, said hospital officials knew about Gerner's punishment and required him to be supervised by another doctor.

Dr. Stephen John Davis, who earned $111,245 at a Nevada federal prison last year. Michigan and Georgia suspended his medical licenses for six months in 1993 on charges he neglected one of his nursing home patients who died. Davis said prison officials knew about the case when they hired him. "It happened at the time when nursing homes were under fire, so I was the example," Davis said.

A federal job can be attractive to punished doctors because they would not need malpractice insurance. Injured patients must sue the government, not the doctor, for malpractice at federal facilities. "A lot of these guys have been sued and are fed up with medicine, so they come into the prison or the federal government health care system," explained Dr. Fred McRae Roberson, who works at a Minnesota federal prison after being penalized by Minnesota, Texas and Louisiana.

A few federal doctors suffered relapses of past conduct. Dr. Ralph Benton Perkerson Jr., who lost medical licenses six times for drug use, was fired last year from the VA hospital in Lake City, Fla. after using cocaine a new. "I never used drugs when I was working on patients, and I never thought I was impaired when treating patients," Perkerson said.