Scripps special report: 900 doctors owe $116 million in government loans

Health care

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Health care

This is the final of three stories related to people choosing to go into the medical profession and the costs and challenges they face. To read all of the articles, pick up a copy of Sunday's Daily News.

* * * * *

Young doctors choosing Naples, other Florida cities after in-state residency

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Despite high cost and residency shortage, Florida sees interest rise in medical school

Thomas Schatz, president of the Washington, D.C., watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, says the lingering debts owed by deadbeat doctors from a decades-old loan program reflect the government's focus on new programs rather than accountability for old ones. "Congress doesn't provide enough resources to collect all this money," he said. (SHNS photo by Matt Anzur)

(C)Scripps Howard News Service

Thomas Schatz, president of the Washington, D.C., watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, says the lingering debts owed by deadbeat doctors from a decades-old loan program reflect the government's focus on new programs rather than accountability for old ones. "Congress doesn't provide enough resources to collect all this money," he said. (SHNS photo by Matt Anzur)

WASHINGTON _ Payback can be a bitter pill for the nation's deadbeat doctors.

The government has seized tax refunds and unemployment checks, claimed judgments against them in federal court, banned them from billing Medicare and Medicaid, even posted their names on a public shaming list.

Yet 930 medical professionals nationwide remain in default, owing the government more than $116 million for loans many stopped repaying more than 18 years ago.

None are practicing in Collier or south Lee counties, according to a database. But among them on the national list are:

■ Detroit dentist Duane Senior, 55, has been on the default list since 1997 and reported owing $651,783 as of Nov. 1. A graduate of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn., Senior works in a small dental practice.

■ Dr. Larose McCluskey, 61, of Cheney, Wash., an osteopathic doctor who graduated from the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences in 1987, owes the most of anyone on the list — $933,675. The initial federal claim against her in 1998 was for $222,055. She practiced family medicine in Washington state for about five years and then stopped to raise her four children and become a medical missionary.

■ Dr. Thomas McElhinney, 76, an Elkton, Fla., chiropractor who owes more than $572,900 for his training at Life University in Marietta, Ga. He relinquished his license to practice in 2004 and said he was never able to establish his practice.

The last loans in the program came in 1998. This year, the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) budgeted $2.8 million for the program, with more than a dozen employees tracking the deadbeat docs and monitoring 30,000 other professionals paying back more than $730 million on time.

The Health Education Assistance Loan (HEAL) program was intended to help keep medical training open to middle-class students starting in 1978.

The money was supposed to be a last resort — private loans from banks, credit unions and other lenders guaranteed by the federal government to help pay for graduate study for doctors, dentists, optometrists, chiropractors and others. Interest started accruing immediately and ran into double digits for many loans.

Over 20 years, the program loaned $4 billion to about 157,000 students, of whom 95 percent have kept up with payments. Lenders for the minority that didn't turned to the government when they couldn't collect. Those defaults forced Congress to appropriate more than $300 million to pay off the loans.

"It's not the government's money, it's the taxpayers' money. People in Washington tend to just let it go out the door and not worry as much about whether it ever gets paid back," said Thomas Schatz, president of the Washington, D.C., watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste.

The HRSA hasn't offered a loan-guarantee program for medical education since HEAL loans ended.

Medical-school students today graduate with an average debt of more than $162,000, yet government and school officials say their loan-default rates are only about 1 percent. The overall default rate on all higher education loans is estimated at around 13 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Although the HRSA says "millions of dollars have been received from defaulters as a result of the activities associated with publicizing their names," 30 percent of the individuals on the default list today were on it in 1995.

Asked to comment on the enduring delinquency, HRSA spokesman David Bowman said in a written statement: "HRSA does not know and cannot speculate why one-third of the defaulted doctors continue on the defaulted doctors list."

Mary Wakefield, administrator of the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, which runs the Health Education Assistance Loan program, declined to answer questions when confronted in person on Feb. 4 about how delinquencies in medical-education loans have been handled. The agency would only respond to questions in writing. (SHNS photo courtesy of U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration) EDITOR: Photo is small.

Mary Wakefield, administrator of the federal Health Resources and Services Administration, which runs the Health Education Assistance Loan program, declined to answer questions when confronted in person on Feb. 4 about how delinquencies in medical-education loans have been handled. The agency would only respond to questions in writing. (SHNS photo courtesy of U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration) EDITOR: Photo is small.

Scripps asked HRSA Administrator Mary Wakefield to comment about the effectiveness of her agency in collecting defaulted HEAL loans as she left a conference on rural health Feb. 4.

She declined to answer, but said she would try to find someone to discuss the program. HRSA officials later repeated their refusal to submit to a formal interview.

Some professionals on the deadbeat list say they didn't intend to default, but were overwhelmed by high interest rates, business mistakes and other debts.

Detroit dentist Senior said he had tried to settle his debt, but "I wasn't able to maintain that obligation." He told Scripps that he stopped practicing for a time and has other federal and state tax obligations.

"It's not really my intention to stick it to the taxpayers. I have made every reasonable effort to try and pay things back. I just haven't been as financially successful as I had hoped to have been," Senior said.

McCluskey, whose Oregon medical license expired in 2006, describes herself on her website and blog as a "board-certified, residency-trained family doc" who "sold my practice and moved out in faith" to do free medical clinics and evangelistic outreach overseas. She reports having worked in 20 countries and supports her trips with donations.

In Florida, as in several other states, a law allows licensing boards to suspend health professionals who fail to repay guaranteed student loans.

Chiropractor McElhinney, after having a judgment entered against him in federal court in 1996 and being warned that he faced suspension of his license in 2002, did nothing to respond, according to a June 2004 emergency suspension order issued by the Florida Department of Health.

In August 2004, McElhinney signed an agreement with the state's Board of Chiropractic Medicine to voluntarily give up his license.

"When I got out of school, I was in my mid-40s and there were seven chiropractors in town. Two years later, there were 18 of us and there just weren't enough patients," he said. "I've had heart attacks and I'm trying to get 100 percent disability from the military. My hands are so bad I couldn't practice now, even if I had the opportunity."

Once placed on the public default list, deadbeat borrowers generally are removed only due to death or permanent disability or by reaching a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice.

Not every deadbeat doc is aggressively pursued. Those who have dropped out of professional practice or retired or have no assets are seldom a high priority.

A 2010 report from the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general used a special state database to determine that more than half of nearly 1,100 on the deadbeat-docs list at the time had no apparent income. Of the 486 defaulters who earned any money, 98 made $50,000 or more and owed more than $15 million.

"Congress doesn't provide enough resources to collect all this money," Schatz said. "That's one of the many reasons that these programs tend to drag on for many years. Congress spends more time setting up new programs than they do going after the people that don't pay the money back."

Contact Lee Bowman at bowmanl@shns.com

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