California gives pension perk to telemedicine doctors

Coalinga State Hospital is home to nearly 1,300 men in a special class of sex

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Coalinga State Hospital is home to nearly 1,300 men in a special class of sex offenders who, under state law, are sent to the Fresno County mental health hospital after serving their prison sentences. About 30 are undocumented men in custody as “civil detainees” despite serving time for their crimes and asking to be deported.

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California gives its best pension benefits to cops, firefighters and prison guards who sometimes are asked to risk their own safety to protect others.

Recently the state has been offering the same formula to a set of psychiatrists who never have to step into a prison or a state hospital to meet their patients, according to a California State Auditor report published Thursday.

State psychiatrists based in Los Angeles and San Bernardino have been using computer cameras to treat patients at Coalinga State Hospital, a remote and understaffed facility southwest of Fresno. Since they’re not in danger, they shouldn’t get richer benefits that could cost California millions of dollars over decades, Auditor Elaine Howle said in the report.

The telepsychiatry findings were included in a semiannual audit of improper activities of California state government agencies and employees the auditor conducts under the California Whistleblower Protection Act.

State workers with safety pensions don’t have to contribute to Social Security and they can retire at an earlier age with a higher percentage of their wages used to calculate their pensions, according to the audit.

“For example, employees in a safety classification who retire at age 55 after 30 years of state service will collect a pension equal to 75% of their highest income before retirement, whereas employees of the same age and tenure in other classifications would collect only 60%,” the audit says.

Psychiatrists who work in the state’s mental hospitals and prisons make about $296,000 per year, according to the latest Human Resources Department survey.

Auditors calculated the difference for three unnamed psychiatrists who have been treating patients remotely. During their first 20 years of retirement, pensions for each of the three doctors would cost the state between $550,000 and $900,000 more due to the safety classification, the audit says.

The Department of State Hospitals disagreed with the auditor’s determination that safety pensions must be reserved for people whose work puts them in danger, but agreed to refer the matter to the Human Resources Department, which has authority over decisions about benefit levels.

State Hospitals officials told the auditor the change to pensions for telepsychiatry could hurt its recruitment.

The Department of State Hospitals has struggled to hire psychiatrists to treat patients at its five hospitals, and in particular at the remote Coalinga and Atascadero state hospitals. Among the hospitals’ patients are sexually violent predators, criminal offenders with mental health disorders and a group of severely disabled people who haven’t committed crimes but represent a danger to themselves or others.

About 40 percent of the state’s psychiatry jobs, including those at prisons and mental institutions, were empty in 2018, the last year for which vacancy rate data was available from CalHR. Coalinga has 1,286 beds and 17 psychiatrists. Atascadero has 1,184 beds and 10 psychiatrists, according to the hospitals’ website and the audit.

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Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.

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