WA Medical Commission Indefinitely Suspends Top Prison Doctor's License

WA Medical Commission Indefinitely Suspends Top Prison Doctor's License

In April 2019, Dr. Julia Barnett was terminated as the head doctor at the Monroe Correctional Complex (“MCC”) by the Washington State Department of Corrections (“DOC”). MCC is the third-largest prison in the state. An internal investigation found she was responsible for the inadequate care of six inmates, three of whom died. In November 2020, the Washington Medical Association (“WMA”) indefinitely suspended her license.

Barnett, a former pharmacist, assumed the position of medical director at MCC in 2017. Her initial salary was $260,000. She previously worked for Corizon Health, a major provider of prison medical services, in Arizona. Barnett did not possess the credentials to serve as medical director at MCC, but the DOC made an exception because few doctors wanted the job. Barnett had not completed her residency or received board certification.

By October 2018, she was put on paid leave before her firing six months later. In her appeal after termination, Barnett states MCC was a “problematic place to care for sick people.” She can also appeal her license suspension.

Ignoring Serious Medical Problems

According to medical records, nurses notified Barnett that inmates suffering severe medical issues were being ignored. In one example, a 41-year old prisoner stuck a pencil into his urethra and into the bladder to relieve an itch. Barnett refused to allow treatment, telling nurses not to do anything as long as the inmate could urinate. Five days later, he underwent emergency surgery to repair his ruptured bladder.

For weeks, some prisoners remain untreated despite serious infection, organ failure and stab wounds. In August 2018, a 55-year old inmate succumbed to his infected surgical wounds, with “substandard care” a critical factor in his demise. A 57-year old man died that same month from a degenerative lung disease. There was no effort made to seek advanced hospital care or allow a specialist to examine him. The inmate died gasping for air.

Barnett ordered patients with medical problems placed in areas of MCC designed for the mentally ill, further putting them in harm’s way.

As per the order suspending her license, the WMC notes that Barnett’s medical decision making for the six patients “demonstrated a serious lack of judgment and did not reflect standard of care.” All of the six patients should have been transferred to a hospital when it became apparent MCC could not treat them at the facility.

Focus on Reducing Health Care Costs

Staff members were among those blowing the whistle on Barnett. Two doctors and several nurses told administrators Barnett apparently made decisions based on reducing health care costs rather than patient benefit. The DOC investigation included statements of physicians reviewing Barnett’s cases and describing the care provided as “bordering on negligence.” Another term used for her mismanagement: “Shocking.”

Lawsuits Coming

The DOC notes that affected prisoners were notified of Barnett’s firing and her license suspension. It is expected that legal claims for this gross negligence will follow. In fact, one lawsuit, for $1.5 million, has already been filed. It involves the misdiagnosis and treatment of the lesions on a diabetic inmate’s feet.

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