At least 10 doctors not previously disciplined by the state signed sick notes for Madison School District employees that the district considered fraudulent, according to a State Journal analysis of the notes submitted amid Capitol protests earlier this year.
The newspaper also found that about 570 district employees submitted sick notes for at least one of the four days in February when teacher absences forced a shutdown of school. The number presents, for the first time, a clearer picture of how many Madison employees sought an excused absence.
The documents — obtained by the newspaper Friday as part of a settlement with the district in an open records lawsuit — show that school employees sought excused absences for everything from the illness of a child and surgery to laryngitis and stress "from current governmental activities."
More than 300 employees submitted sick notes for Feb. 16, the first day a protest closed schools, according to the analysis. That's far more than the typical 100 absences for a day in February. For each of the other three days, between 217 and 289 employees sought excused absences.
In some cases, the district accepted as valid sick notes written weeks after the protests. In others, doctors wrote one note covering the entire four days of protest. The sick notes don't show whether the employees attended the protests.
The district paid employees who turned in sick notes that indicated they or a family member were seen by a doctor or other medical personnel. The State Journal's analysis suggests about seven in 10 of the absent employees turned in notes that met those criteria.
Those who weren't paid, with a few exceptions, either couldn't verify that they or a family member were examined by a doctor, or submitted notes signed by a group calling themselves "Badger Doctors." There were 50 notes signed by Badger Doctors, including some with illegible signatures, in the records.
The Medical Examining Board reprimanded seven doctors last month and gave administrative warnings to two others. The state reviewed three additional doctors but didn't formally investigate them because of lack of evidence, said Greg Gasper, spokesman for the state Department of Safety and Professional Services.
The 10 additional doctors identified in the records, like some of the seven doctors reprimanded, used sick note form letters listing email@example.com as their contact information. The district cited that as grounds for declaring all notes from those doctors as fraudulent.
When asked Friday why the state didn't investigate the additional doctors and if the state reviewed the school district's sick notes during its investigation, Gasper didn't directly answer the questions.
"We received hundreds of emails from concerned citizens seeking to bring this issue to our attention," Gasper said. "If new complaints arise, they will be responded to through the normal process, given a fair review and acted upon by the Medical Examining Board if they believe such action is warranted."
The State Journal is not naming the additional doctors because it could not be determined if they have been accused of any wrongdoing.
Superintendent Dan Nerad said district officials wondered why more doctors weren't reprimanded, given the number of doctors who had signed sick notes the district deemed fraudulent.
Nerad said he couldn't judge whether some sick notes the district determined were valid were actually submitted by employees who weren't ill.
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"We were relying on what the doctors told us," he said.
Some details withheld
The district released the sick note records Friday as part of a settlement with the newspaper.
The newspaper sued in June to obtain the records after the district refused to release them under the state's open records law. Last month, a Dane County circuit judge ruled the district had violated the law and ordered it to turn over the records. The newspaper agreed to accept the records with the names of the employees blacked out.
Before release, Madison Teachers Inc., the union that represents teachers, threatened to sue to prevent the release of the records. The newspaper agreed to accept records with additional redactions to about 45 notes — in which medical or other information might identify an employee.
However, the notes include the names of doctors and other medical personnel who signed the notes. Some also state whether the patient visited a clinic, office or other medical facility for an examination, whether the patient called in an illness by phone, and the dates for which they were excused.
The district did not release notes submitted by 37 people and signed by Badger Doctors, which the employees later rescinded. The newspaper is disputing the district's withholding of those records, saying they should be turned over as part of the settlement.
Also not released and under dispute are other notes submitted by employees for absences during the protests unrelated to illness.
Those notes include excuses to attend conferences, a child's school-related function, jury duty, funerals, or for some other leave of absence or emergency child-care situation, district lawyer Dylan Pauly said. Forty-two employees submitted notes acknowledging their absence and expecting their pay to be docked.
Expectation of honesty
Six of the seven doctors reprimanded were from UW-Madison, and the other one was from Dean Clinic. Nine of the 10 additional doctors appear to be from UW-Madison, according to campus websites.
The UW School of Medicine and Public Health reviewed 22 doctors said to have been involved in writing sick notes and disciplined at least a dozen of them, a university attorney said in August. The university hasn't released the specific actions, saying the process isn't complete.
The Wisconsin Medical Society criticized the doctors who wrote sick notes for protesters Feb. 19 on the Capitol Square, saying the doctors threatened the public's trust in the medical profession.
"It deals with the fundamental tenet of honesty," Dr. Kesavan Kutty, chairman of the ethics committee of the American College of Physicians, said this week. "You're representing your patient before the employer, and the employer expects you to be honest."