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Thursday, June 7, 2012 05:22 pm

Jailhouse doctor free to practice

Six months after settlement, no discipline for Peoria physician

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Dr. Stephen Austin Cullinan
The ill in Oklahoma need not worry about Dr. Stephen Austin Cullinan.

The Peoria physician with a history of six-figure lawsuit settlements and a trail of tragedy allowed his license to lapse last month in the Sooner State. But Cullinan remains good to go in Illinois and several other Midwest states despite a horrific record that has prompted at least one demand that the state Department of Professional and Regulation revoke his license to practice medicine.

Those who rely on Cullinan for medical care have no choice. As chief medical officer for Health Professionals Limited, Cullinan has been responsible for medical care in local jails throughout Illinois and the Midwest that hold as many as 15,000 inmates.

Critics say he’s dangerous.

“Dr. Cullinan has a history of providing grossly inadequate care to inmates,” wrote Springfield attorney Alexandra de Saint Phalle in a January letter to the Illinois Board of Financial and Professional Regulation, which licenses physicians. “Although I have filed many negligence cases, I have never felt that the infraction was so severe as to warrant revocation of a physician’s license. This case is the exception.”

De Saint Phalle won a $737,500 settlement from Cullinan late last year after suing him for wrongful death in the case of Maurice Burris, a Sangamon County jail inmate who died in 2007 after a perforated ulcer went untreated. The court record shows that Burris suffered for two days in the jail, vomiting blood while his pulse raced at 130 beats per minute, before he finally collapsed and was, too late, rushed to a hospital. Had Burris been taken to an emergency room earlier, he would have lived, according to a Harvard University physician retained by the plaintiff.

In her letter to state regulators charged with protecting patients, de Saint Phalle included Burris’ autopsy report, copies of jail medical records, hospital records, depositions in the lawsuit and a report by Dr. Marc Stern, former medical director for the Washington State prison system, who concluded that Cullinan’s lack of treatment went beyond error. Rather, Stern concluded, Cullinan, by all appearances, simply didn’t care about his patient.

De Saint Phalle included contact information for herself and Stern in her letter to the state. Six months later, she and Stern say that no regulators from Illinois or any other state have contacted them.

“I have not heard anything,” de Saint Phalle said. “Obviously, six months is enough time for him to respond, or for something to happen.”

De Saint Phalle wrote to the state board after the case was adjudicated in federal court, with Sangamon County agreeing to pay $60,000 in addition to Cullinan’s six-figure settlement. De Saint Phalle was under no legal obligation to write to the board, which is supposed to investigate whenever a physician settles a lawsuit alleging malpractice.

“I think this is more than a garden-variety negligence case,” de Saint Phalle said.

In addition to the Burris case, Cullinan in 2010 agreed to a six-figure settlement in the case of Jason Waggener, whose leg was amputated in 2007 after he suffered a fractured ankle in the Macoupin County jail. The state of Michigan fined Cullinan $10,000 in 2009 after finding that he had withheld psychotropic drugs from mentally ill inmates. Several lawsuits are pending in Illinois, including one filed by the family of an inmate who died last year in the Ogle County jail after suffering serious burns that were allegedly not properly treated. Cullinan is also being sued by the family of a Grundy County inmate who suffered seizures and died last year after he allegedly went without prescribed epilepsy medication.

Cullinan could not be reached for comment. Julie Kelly, a spokeswoman for Correctional Healthcare Companies, the Colorado-based parent company of Health Professionals, promised to respond to written questions submitted on May 30 but did not as of press time.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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