Health Scare

Employee complaints prompt investigation of ASU health center

Arizona State University's Student Health and Wellness Center is in turmoil, as officials await the results of a six-month independent investigation into allegations that the university's head sports doctor has misdiagnosed student athletes.

But parents are worried that the investigation will only uncover the beginning of what has gone wrong with the medical care of their children.

The investigation, which is set to be released by the end of the month by the Phoenix law firm of Sanders & Parks, will likely address myriad concerns ranging from a potentially faulty x-ray machine to employee harassment to overbilling, according to interviews with some complainants and the formal complaint itself, a copy of which was obtained by New Times.

The five employees, including x-ray technician Bill Collins, allege that Steve Erickson, ASU's head athletic team physician, misdiagnosed student athletes whose real ailments ranged from fractures to Hodgkin's disease. And that Erickson allegedly:

• Used a portable x-ray machine in need of maintenance on at least a dozen student athletes.

• Sent student athletes to a Scottsdale pharmacy to have prescriptions filled exclusively by that pharmacy in exchange for a $10,000 donation to ASU's Intercollegiate Athletics Department.

• Overbilled student athletes.

Further, the employees complain that Mary Rimsza, director of the Student Health Center (sister of former Phoenix mayor Skip, she left her position as CEO of MedPro, Maricopa County Hospital's private contractor for patient care, in 1999 to come to ASU) ignored all of their complaints about Erickson, including concerns that he discriminated against employees based on race and sex, which they say they brought to her attention. The complaint also requested that ASU investigate additional charges against Rimsza, including that she created a hostile work environment by harassing and intimidating employees herself.

Parents and current Student Health employees interviewed for this story say that Erickson's mistreatment of student athletes includes current and former members of the ASU basketball team and football team.

None of the players mentioned by parents and employees returned calls and e-mails from New Times.

Aside from Collins, none of the current Student Health Center employees interviewed were willing to go on the record, for fear of losing their jobs. Rimsza referred requests for information to ASU spokeswoman Nancy Neff, who declined comment, saying she is not familiar with the accusations.

Erickson offered a terse response to New Times' request for an interview, saying only, "It's none of your paper's business. You can talk to my attorney," but then refusing to provide his attorney's name.

Juan Gonzalez, ASU's vice president for student affairs, did confirm the investigation. He says the university has "agreed to facilitate and encourage full participation in this investigation."

He adds that once the report is submitted, "there's going to be a continuing need to protect individuals and to protect personnel policy. But I will say that legal counsel, administration, the institution takes this very seriously, enough for an independent investigation."

The formal complaint, submitted to ASU's Office of General Counsel on December 2, 2003, also criticizes Rimsza, under a category labeled "Ethics."

"Dr. Rimsza's excessive outside commitments offset her daily interaction with staff, management and patients of Student Health," according to the complaint. "It is difficult to deal with a director who is never here or available. We never know when she will make an appearance. Dr. Rimsza continues [to] allow favored personnel to take non-charged time off, whereas providers, nurses and other medical personnel are required to come in outside of work hours for student health.

"Dr. Rimsza makes political statements to staff at student health meetings, and indicated that she will review our private employee United Way contributions. She regularly parks in the student health parking lot, but has ordered citations/towing if other staff park there."

The complaint also alleges that Rimsza has mishandled issues involving nursing and the health center's medical library. And the complaint accuses Rimsza of failing "to find a very large and obvious tumors [sic] on a patients [sic] uterus and told the patient that her tumors had gone away and she was fine, she changed the birth control for one patient who ended up getting pregnant, a patient with gonorrhea who Dr. Rimsza and her student resident attended to was treated with a drug that is ineffective for the treatment of gonorrhea."

In May 2002, 15 Student Health providers met with ASU's then-vice president of student affairs Christine Wilkinson (now ASU's senior vice president) and her assistant, Jim Rund, the complainants say. One of the employees who helped launch the current investigation says Wilkinson and Rund told Student Health employees at the time that "no action could be taken because the university was in a transition period between [former ASU president] Lattie Coor and [current president] Michael Crow."

And so, the employee adds, "they didn't do squat."

But Rund says that's untrue. "We never would have said that. That's not something either of us said," says Rund, now ASU's vice president of undergraduate admissions. "We gathered follow-up information and we charted a course of action." Rund declined to specify those actions, adding that personnel recommendations are confidential.

Two years later, some Student Health employees still have issues. Five current staff members submitted the formal complaint. Since then, senior radiology technician Bill Collins, and the four other employees who requested anonymity from New Times, have been under the protection of the Arizona Board of Regents' "whistle-blowing" policy, which states that "university representatives may not take any retaliatory action against an employee . . . because they reported concerns."

Collins' main concern is with Erickson's use of a portable x-ray machine at his office at Sun Devil Stadium that Collins says was neither registered with the Arizona Radiation Regulatory Agency nor calibrated for more than a year (New Times confirmed this with state officials), and therefore might have overexposed student athletes to unnecessary levels of radiation. Collins says he performed a standard test on the machine, which Erickson obtained from Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix in 2002, and the machine emitted fluctuating levels of radiation. At that point, Collins advised Erickson that he needed "to get [the machine] calibrated," and that it needed to be registered.

Erickson did nothing, Collins says.

"If it's fluctuating, you don't know how much radiation you're giving the patient," says Collins, who's worked in radiology for more than 30 years, including 11 years at Scottsdale Healthcare North before getting a job with ASU in 2000.

Collins says the machine continued to be used without calibration or registration for several months after he performed the test. At least a dozen student athletes were given x-rays on the machine during the fall 2003 semester, according to documents obtained by New Times from an anonymous source. However, Erickson did not register the machine until December 17, 2003, according to Robert Cope, the head of the state's x-ray compliance team.

E-mails and other correspondence between Rimsza and Erickson obtained through a public records request reveal that the x-ray machine was not inspected until March 23, 2004, after several complaints by Collins. However, a medical physicist recommended that the unit could be used after maintenance and calibration.

In the formal complaint, employees also allege that Erickson brokered a deal with the Apothecary Shop, a Scottsdale company that owns and operates eight pharmacies around the Valley. Erickson allegedly told student athletes not to fill prescriptions at the Student Health Center and instead had them fill prescriptions exclusively at an Apothecary Shop location in exchange for a $10,000 donation to ASU athletics. Erickson also began operating his own satellite pharmacy out of the Intercollegiate Athletics building, employees allege, with drugs supplied by the Apothecary Shop, without ever having released a request for proposal from other outside pharmaceutical companies.

However, John Musil, the president and CEO of Apothecary Shops of Arizona, says that his company has never given ASU a donation. Rather, Musil says he approached a former ASU assistant athletic director and "structured a program with the university to provide medications for the athletic department," in exchange for free advertising in game-related marketing materials.

"I never gave the university a dime," Musil says. "I'm a University of Arizona alum."

As to the overbilling accusations, the complaint alleges "overbilling or fraudulent billing (i.e. charged for more visits than occurred or for activities not usually charged for as a 'visit'). . . ."

The complaint elaborates: "Contracts negotiated by Dr. Erickson for ICA [Intercollegiate Athletics] athletes/patients with Gateway radiology give a greatly reduced fee for special exams (i.e. Cat scans and MRI's) to athletes only. This allows ICA athlete's [sic] access to costly exams that the rest of ASU student health population does not have access to at these greatly reduced fees."

Jordan Widdes, whose stepson, Brandon Goldman, played for the ASU basketball team for the past two seasons, says players were billed $20 per game for an ice pack. (Goldman played 13 games; that means a potential $260 just for ice packs for a walk-on player.) Collins, meanwhile, says that Erickson was billing student athletes twice for visits -- once during the actual x-ray, and again when the students returned to his office with film of the x-ray -- a billing procedure Collins says is unheard of and unethical.

While Rimsza allegedly ignored employees' and parents' complaints about Erickson, Rimsza is accused of keeping all male OB/GYN providers out of the women's clinic, and telling former Student Health provider Ted Blackwelder in April 2001 -- who she terminated in June 2001 -- that, "College women don't want to see male gynecologists . . . especially one your age," according to Blackwelder, now 74 years old. Blackwelder says he settled with the university for an undisclosed amount, and is now volunteering at a south Scottsdale clinic sponsored by ASU.

One of the complainants, a woman, elaborates on the formal complaint. She says she had been assisting Erickson and the sports medicine staff during ASU football games. No more, she says, claiming that Erickson terminated her services on game days based on racial and sexual discrimination.

"[Erickson] told me that the only reason I was working football games was because of my [Hispanic] last name, and then he said that he didn't want me there because he didn't want women working with the athletic department," she says.

According to the complaint, "Dr. Rimsza has continued to ignore reported sexual, racial discrimination/harassment and abusive behavior at ICA. Staff has been told to hang in there this is a male area, the Ôole boys network.'"

(In all fairness, New Times did obtain an e-mail through the public records request of the university, which reflects that in April, Erickson requested athletic department identification badges for two women who would be working at ASU athletic games.)

Steve Leach, a Sanders & Parks attorney who has been working on the investigation with lead attorney Bob Bruno since January, declined to discuss any information from the investigation's preliminary findings. However, he says he expects the report to be submitted to ASU by Memorial Day, May 31.

But university officials claim the report is confidential, per attorney/client privilege, and say they will not release the report to the public. That has some parents of former student athletes treated by Erickson worried that ASU will whitewash the findings.

"If [ASU doesn't] do something about Erickson and Rimsza, I'm afraid I'll be forced to take some other course of action," says Faye Allen, who claims that Erickson -- who has a clean record with the Arizona Board of Medical Examiners -- misdiagnosed her son, former ASU basketball player Justin Allen, in 2000, with a mere groin strain before he was correctly diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease a month and a half later by another ASU doctor. Turns out, Allen's Hodgkin's was discovered in the lymph nodes of his groin.

Of Erickson, Faye Allen says, "I can't stand by and watch him practice the kind of medicine he is practicing."

E-mail joe.watson@newtimes.com, or call 602-744-6557.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest
 
Phoenix Concert Tickets

Around The Web

Loading...