- Associated Press - Thursday, March 2, 2017

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California is ready to dramatically increase pay for certain prison doctors in response to pressure to add physicians and improve inmate health care.

The tentative contract with the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, obtained by The Associated Press, includes a 9 percent raise over four years for the union’s roughly 1,500 members.

But it bumps doctors’ pay another 15 percent each year if they work at a dozen prisons with physician vacancy rates averaging 30 percent. For a doctor earning the average $270,000 per year that’s more than $160,000 over the life of the contract.

“They’re going to be well taken care of, they’re going to be very happy,” said the union’s president, Dr. Stuart Bussey.

The shortage of medical and mental health professionals has been stalling California’s progress toward improving prison conditions enough to end the 11-year federal oversight.

With too few doctors, “there are tremendous backlogs,” said Don Specter, director of the Berkeley-based nonprofit Prison Law Office that sued the state over poor medical care. “Certainly the risk of harm is much greater when you have long delays to see a physician.”

The union and state officials believe the pay hike will attract the roughly 70 doctors needed to fill all vacancies.

Bonuses are also going to doctors at eight state facilities that treat veterans and those with mental and developmental disabilities, to dissuade those physicians from transferring to nearby prisons.

There’s also a shortage of psychiatrists that at some prisons is as severe as the dearth of doctors. But the contract doesn’t call for any bonuses for them.

The shortage is so acute that special master Matthew Lopes Jr. recently recommended that the federal judge overseeing inmate mental health care consider raising wages by court order, as judges did in 2006.

“If they fail to do it on their own, then the court should, in our opinion, force the increases,” said Michael Bien, one of the attorneys representing mentally ill inmates.

The number of severely mentally ill inmates being seen by each prison psychiatrist increased from 30 to 42 between November 2014 and November 2016, while the number of prison psychiatrists dropped from 251 to 216, according to statistics compiled by inmates’ lawyers.

California taxpayers have spent billions of dollars in the last decade to increase salaries and build or improve mental health and medical facilities in state prisons.

But more than a third of the state’s 35 adult prisons still provide inadequate care, according to the state inspector general.

Joyce Hayhoe, spokeswoman for the receiver who has provided inmate health care since a U.S. judge seized control of the prison medical system in 2006, said state pay hasn’t kept up with the private sector and inmates have suffered because of the vacancies.

Even so, doctors and psychiatrists are among the highest-paid state employees and many pad their salaries with overtime. They also have generous health care and pension benefits.

In 2015, seven prison doctors and psychiatrists earned more than $400,000, and one-third of the 100 highest-paid state employees were in those professions, according to state controller records reviewed by The AP.

“There’s no question that they’re making a lot of money,” Specter said. “You have to pay them a lot of money to work in that (prison) environment.”

The contract must be approved by union members and the state Legislature. State officials could not immediately say how much the pact would cost taxpayers.

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