By James Wigderson
Special Guest Perspective for the MacIver Institute
One of the more controversial stories to come out of last year’s protests in Madison was the handing out of notes excusing people from work by several doctors right in the Capitol Square. Working out of a tent, the doctors advertised they were handing out medical excuses to the protestors.
First reported by the MacIver News Service, the story of the doctors handing out medical excuses for missing work to protestors in Madison in such a brazen fashion made national news.
Many of the protestors were public school teachers who had been warned they could face disciplinary action for unexcused absences. Mass absences by teachers caused several school districts to close during the protests in February.
The Madison School District closed for four days as a result of the unplanned absences. An investigation by the Madison School District uncovered 84 teachers used what they considered fraudulent sick notes.
Spurred by reports from the MacIver Institute and other organizations about the doctors handing out excuses to the protestors, investigations were launched by the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and by the state Medical Examining Board into the doctors’ conduct.
The state Medical Examining Board disciplined seven doctors with a reprimand for poor record keeping and issued a warning to two other physicians. The board found that they could not determine whether a proper evaluation was done of the patients to justify handing them a medical excuse.
The UW School of Medicine and Public Health had a number of employees involved in handing out medical excuses at the protests but denied any involvement by the school. After an investigation, they told the Wisconsin State Journal that at least a dozen doctors were disciplined for their actions on the mall. The discipline “range from written reprimand to loss of pay and leadership position.”
A further investigation by the Wisconsin State Journal revealed that ten more doctors who were not disciplined by the state also signed sick notes that the district considered fraudulent for Madison School District teachers.
One of the people who saw the tent with doctors handing out medical excuses that day was Milwaukee-based personal injury attorney Kelin Olson. Despite serious concerns about what he perceives as an anti-trial lawyer bias among Republicans controlling Madison, Olson attended an Americans for Prosperity Rally with family and friends before walking around the Capitol Square to check out the protests.
In an interview Saturday, Olson described his reaction when he saw the tent.
“My first reaction was, I can’t believe they’re doing it so openly. Really, I cannot believe they were so ballsy to just stand there. They’re wearing lab coats, they’ve got clipboards and they’re walking up to people saying, `Do you need an excuse?’”
Comparing them to, “street hawkers,” Olson was shocked at how casual it was.
“They were joking about, `Oh, no, Scott Walker’s got you so stressed you need a day to relax.’ I felt like this was a hippy festival and this was a big joke like you’re going to Woodstock and they’re writing prescriptions to stay off the brown acid or something.”
“I was like, really? You guys are professionals and you have a certain trust from the people of Wisconsin to do the right thing – and this isn’t the right thing. And maybe in their mind they thought it was but it clearly wasn’t the legal thing to do.”
In Olson’s practice as a personal injury attorney, one of the questions that he has to deal with is the credibility of witnesses. In the interview, Olson was asked about that issue with the doctors involved and how it would affect his decision making as an attorney.
Regarding the School of Medicine’s lack of openness regarding the discipline of the doctors involved, Olson said he understood that many disciplinary situations are kept confidential by employers.
However, “If I was going against a doctor in a legal proceeding I would want to know if he participated because it goes to his credibility as a witness. So that’s where my concern would come in.,” Olson said. “If I had a malpractice action or something against the UW doctor and if I didn’t think he was being truthful about what happened, I would want to know if he had lied in the past. Because that’s evidence of character, that’s evidence of, people that commit fraud, that’s a crime you can tell a jury about because it goes to the person’s veracity or credibility.”
“If there’s a doctor who is willing to lie about this, what else is he willing to lie about? People say that it isn’t that big of a deal but it’s still committing fraud.”
Whether Olson would feel comfortable using any of the doctors involved as witnesses, he said that while he would have to interview the doctor, it would be something that could benefit the other side. “If they have been disciplined for fraud, that would be something that I would want to know as an attorney because it does go into whether they would lie to benefit themselves or someone else.”
“Whether or not I would use one of them it depends on the person, depends on the situation, depends what I needed them for. I might, but then again I’d rather not have to deal with that issue.”
Olson also explained that it would depend on the venue. “If you’ve got a jury of people that supported the protesting, you may not mind that you’ve got this doctor because they may give him more credence. So it’s a two-edged sword.” Olson said that Madison, for example, would be more forgiving of the doctor’s actions, while he definitely would not want them as witnesses in Waukesha or Washington County.
In an article for Atlantic Monthly, Dr. Ford Vox said of the physicians handing out the excuses, “They’ve managed to belittle a public trust between physicians, employers and patients.” He added, “These doctors sacrificed a slice of the medical profession’s credibility for a political cause. Was it worth it?”
They also damaged their personal credibility in ways they might never have imagined. Just ask a lawyer.