Friday, Nov. 7, 2008 | 2 a.m.
State health officials announced Thursday that they have filed official complaints with federal and state agencies alleging that employers exploited foreign doctors and the laws that allow them to work in Nevada.
Lynn O’Mara, the Nevada State Health Division program manager in charge of the J-1 visa waiver program, said the complaints were filed this week with the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners and the U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division.
O’Mara sent the agencies the results of an anonymous survey of J-1 physicians conducted in July in which five foreign doctors alleged that their bosses had breached contracts, failed to pay them agreed-upon bonuses and hampered their ability to provide high-quality care to patients.
Because the survey substantiated many complaints about the program published in the Sun, O’Mara said, the state decided to ask other agencies to investigate. She said she hopes the doctors will also complain to the agencies, and that the state will continue to file complaints as it uncovers wrongdoing.
O’Mara said the state also forwarded to investigators the Sun’s published findings following the newspaper’s two-year investigation of the government program. The Sun found that some employers were enriching themselves by gaming the J-1 program, which was designed to take care of medically needy patients. The foreign physicians were loath to complain because their bosses sponsored their visas.
The J-1 doctors are hired on the condition they spend at least 40 hours a week seeing patients in medically underserved communities. The Sun found J-1 doctors were diverted to more lucrative assignments to make more money for the boss.
Of interest to federal labor officials will be how much the foreign doctors were paid. J-1 doctors are supposed to be paid the “prevailing wage,” a guaranteed amount that’s equivalent to what a similarly skilled American physician would be paid. But the Sun found that some employers were changing the contract arrangements against the foreign doctors’ will, sometimes resulting in months without pay.
O’Mara said the medical board and Labor Department are reviewing the complaints, but have not said whether they will launch an investigation. The medical board comments about complaints only when disciplinary action has been taken. Labor Department officials would not comment on the complaint by the Nevada Health Division, but said they do investigate third-party complaints.
Las Vegas physician Dr. Abdul Siddiqui may be scrutinized by the Labor Department, if investigators take up the case. Two J-1 doctors who worked for Siddiqui in 2006 told the Sun they had their compensation agreements changed against their will, forcing them to split their net billing with Siddiqui 50-50. One doctor said he and another colleague went without pay for three months.
If that’s true, it could be a violation of federal labor law, according to experts.
Siddiqui told the Sun there was never a time when J-1 doctors who worked for him went unpaid. But a time did come when he could no longer afford to pay them, and that’s when he closed the clinic and allowed them to find other jobs, he said. He said he’s not afraid of a Labor Department investigation.
“Everybody got paid their wages,” Siddiqui said. “That much I have proof and record of.”
State officials made several other announcements at Thursday’s meeting of the Primary Care Advisory Panel, a group that advises the health division on the J-1 program. On Wednesday and Thursday officials made unannounced visits to clinics where J-1 doctors are assigned, verifying that they were spending the required time at the location and that they were not being mistreated. They also held confidential meetings with doctors outside the clinic setting to gauge their satisfaction with the program.
In another related matter, Richard Whitley, administrator for the health division, told the Sun he is taking disciplinary action against a state official who was previously involved in the J-1 program. He said the personnel matter is confidential, but centers on the complaints received from J-1 doctors in 2001 and 2002 that were never addressed by the state. Meanwhile, the official told the media, state legislators and Whitley himself that there had never been complaints about the program.