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Friday, May 10, 2013 08:56 am

State suspends doctor, finally

Action comes after deaths, disfiguration

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Dr. Stephen Austin Cullinan, a Peoria physician whose poor care has resulted in death, amputation and scores of lawsuits across the Midwest, has surrendered his license to practice medicine in Illinois.

Under a deal reached in February with the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, the doctor who worked as a physician in dozens of jails agreed to a 60-day suspension of his physician’s license, then promised to put his license on inactive status. The suspension may be somewhat academic, however, given that Cullinan told state regulators that he retired in February of last year, shortly after settling a federal lawsuit involving the agonizing death of Maurice Burris in the Sangamon County jail in 2007.

Burris died from an untreated ulcer, a type that experts say is typically not fatal if properly treated. A few months before Burris died, Jason Waggener, an inmate in the Macoupin County jail, lost part of a leg after a fractured ankle turned into a compound fracture of his lower leg that became gangrenous. Cullinan agreed to settle the Burris case for $737,500 in 2011. The doctor paid $130,000 to settle a lawsuit from Waggener in 2010, according to state regulators who issued a $10,000 fine two years later.

Cullinan’s record of poor care dates to at least 2004, when a 36-year-old inmate from a southern Illinois jail died from pneumonia three days after being rushed to an emergency room. The inmate had extensive bedsores, according to a county coroner who said the death was preventable. Cullinan had told the inmate that he was faking symptoms on the same day he was taken to the hospital where he died, according to a lawsuit filed by the man’s family.

In the Burris case, Cullinan agreed to a $30,000 fine, which is higher than the $10,000 maximum penalty allowed by the state Medical Practice Act. It is lower, however, than fines assessed against physicians whose wrongdoing involved money instead of matters of life and death. In 2009, for example, Dr. Janet E. Despot of Springfield agreed to a $50,000 fine after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in federal court in connection with a scheme to defraud Medicaid and private insurance plans. There was no evidence that she ever harmed a patient.

Cullinan, however, was a walking malpractice case, judging from scores of lawsuits, several of which are still pending, filed by inmates and their families alleging that the doctor was indifferent to suffering and the medical necessities. In Ogle County, the family of Patrick McCann sued Cullinan and the county. McCann died in 2010, just 10 days after he was transferred to jail from a hospital burn unit. McCann, who had a history of mental problems, had suffered second- and third-degree burns over 40 percent of his body while trying to burn his mother’s house down. An attorney for the family has said that McCann was never seen by a physician after being transferred from the hospital to jail and that Cullinan substituted methadone for opiate painkillers. Methadone costs less than opiates but can have dangerous interactions with psychotropic drugs that McCann had been taking, the attorney has said.

Cullinan in several instances has been accused of withholding drugs from inmates. In Illinois, Cullinan is facing a federal lawsuit from the family of a deceased inmate who died after suffering seizures in the Grundy County jail; the plaintiffs say he didn’t get his prescribed anti-seizure drugs. In Wisconsin, a federal appeals court judge in 2011 wondered aloud why the family of an inmate who died after Cullinan withheld prescribed Xanax had sued the county jail in a civil rights action instead of the doctor for malpractice in state court. In 2009, Michigan regulators fined him $10,000 for not giving psychotropic drugs to inmates who had prescriptions.

Cullinan should be able to afford fines.

Health Professionals Ltd., the company that Cullinan founded and eventually sold while remaining as the firm’s medical director, holds dozens of contracts with jails in several states and once provided health care for the Illinois Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice, which paid the company more than $96.5 million since 2007 under contracts that are now expired. The physician has had sufficient funds to donate nearly $15,700 since 1996 to candidates for Congress, the state legislature and local offices, including the sheriff in Peoria County where Health Professionals landed its first jail health care contract, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Health Professionals Ltd. has contributed $71,550 during that same time period to candidates in Illinois.

Alexandra De Saint Phalle, a Springfield attorney who sued Cullinan and Health Professionals Ltd. on behalf of Burris’ family and urged the state to revoke’s Cullinan’s license, said that the $30,000 fine isn’t enough.

“I was not surprised, but I was disappointed that there was not a more severe financial sanction, especially given the fact that he’s retired,” she said. “Obviously, in the scheme of things, the big picture, it’s not right.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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