Judging a Doctor

AS REGULAR READERS might know, my bleeding heart tendencies are so pronounced that I'm positively anemic. Doctors avoid blood thinners. Vampires hover longingly.

So imagine my surprise at being made livid by a lenient judge.

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik passed sentence last week on neurosurgeon Dr. H. Richard Winn, who, until recently, was the long-standing chairman of the neurosurgery department at the University of Washington. In July, Winn pleaded guilty to a felony count of obstructing justice, in conjunction with a federal investigation into the deliberate overbilling of Medicare by doctors in a program Winn ran for nearly 20 years. Before his plea bargain, Winn was also implicated in Medicare's payout to UW doctors of millions of taxpayer dollars that should not have been paid. This is a polite way of saying that the feds thought Winn and his program stole the money.

At last week's sentencing, however, Lasnik gave Winn a great big all-is-forgiven smooch. No jail time, although federal guidelines suggest it, even for Winn's reduced plea-bargain conviction. Instead, Winn will pay $500,000 to Medicare—which hints at the amount of money that might have been involved—plus a $4,000 fine, perform 1,000 hours of community service, and serve probation.

The $500,000 sounds impressive until you look at the rest of the plea bargain: His resignation from UW, which includes a buyout of at least $950,000—that's UW paying Winn, not the other way around—if Winn doesn't find a job at a "highly regarded" medical school in a city suitable to him. The payout could could go up to $3.7 million if Winn stays jobless.

OF THIS DEAL, Judge Lasnik proclaimed, Winn is paying a "harsh price for those misdeeds. . . . Anyone who thinks this punishment is too lenient has no idea what Dr. Winn and his family have been through in the last years and what lies ahead of him."

Aw, boo hoo hoo. Near as I can figure, once the 60-year-old Dr. Winn (would your highly regarded medical center hire him?) peels the first half-million off his settlement, and spends a month doing community service at some health clinic in Tahiti, what awaits him is a $3.2 million nest egg for an early retirement in some warm climate near the grandkids. I'd love a "punishment" like that. How about you?

To be sure, Dr. Winn has undoubtedly saved many lives. I'm personally in eternal debt to UW's doctors for my own life, and I hold many of them in something between high regard and awe. And to be sure, Medicare's byzantine billing procedures—as with all of our health care financing—make billing errors easy.

But the feds pursue white-collar crime so rarely that you can be certain these were no mere errors. And Winn acknowledged his "misdeeds," including creating what the settlement called an "atmosphere of fear and intimidation" in his department when the federal grand jury came calling.

Winn has professional skills that have been of immense value to the public and still could be. But our society already values those skills in dollars—lots of them. Winn wanted more. That's the essence of white-collar crime. That's why Winn found himself in court.

And my bleeding heart gets exercised because, when it's a professional guy with a certain level of education and erudition (and good lawyers) appearing before the bench, judges can see themselves and feel for the guy and his family. Professional stature becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card. When it's some welfare mom who bilked the system for the money to pay for medicine for her sick kid, you can be sure the book will be thrown. And Lord help the ghetto kid who gets caught with an ounce of weed.

EVERY SINGLE ONE of the over 2 million people now in our American gulag have suffering families, and every one of those inmates represents to some degree a waste of potential that could help society. The Lasniks of our world see only that potential and the heartache, and empathize accordingly, when the defendant is someone like them. In this case, the defendant winds up as well cared for as any parachuted CEO. When the defendant comes from a world that for our Judge Lasniks might as well be Mars, a world encountered by a federal judge only when its inhabitants run afoul of the law, such mercy is beyond rare. Systemic humiliation and destroyed lives are much more the norm.

I don't wish the good Dr. Winn a destroyed life. But the University of Washington is taxpayer funded. After he ripped us off, the last thing we should be doing for Dr. Winn is financing his cushy retirement. Either that, or I can think of a couple million other people who deserve parole.


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