State panel upholds suspension of Monroe prison doctor

Dr. Julia Barnett was fired for unprofessional conduct after prisoner deaths and “unnecessary suffering.”

OLYMPIA — A decision to indefinitely suspend the license of a former medical director at the Monroe prison has been upheld after a disciplinary hearing.

Julia Barnett, 52, was fired in April 2019 from her position as medical director of Monroe Correctional Complex, following a lengthy investigation by the state Department of Corrections. The investigation found her malpractice led to insufficient medical care of at least six patients in the prison.

The Washington Medical Commission sent out a press release Friday evening announcing that a second panel of medical experts found unprofessional conduct under a provision of state law describing “incompetence, negligence or malpractice that results in injury to a patient or which creates an unreasonable risk that a patient may be harmed.”

Barnett had already been suspended in November after a review by the Washington Medical Commission. Barnett appealed. She asked to have the suspension removed while awaiting a disciplinary hearing on the matter. A separate panel heard evidence during the disciplinary hearing in January and February, before making a final finding that the indefinite suspension was warranted.

The case against Barnett involved six patients, four of whom died, according to the state Department of Health press release. The commission found Barnett failed to get each inmate the higher level of care that was required for their conditions and also failed to adequately supervise the providers involved in the patients’ care.

Among Barnett’s patients was a man with a degenerative lung disease who died in September 2018 of respiratory failure, according to DOH charges.

The prisoner, 57, was transferred to the emergency department after his oxygen saturation reached dangerously low levels and his lips turned blue. His medical condition was likely terminal. But the lack of medical attention he received under Barnett’s supervision caused him to endure unnecessary suffering, according to the DOH. The former doctor failed to develop a plan of care for the man before he died, seek consultation from a specialist or transfer him to a facility equipped with more advanced care, the charges state.

Another prisoner who died during Barnett’s time as head doctor suffered complications from a surgical wound that didn’t heal properly. The man, 55, was transferred into the prison’s inpatient unit in May 2017. Three months later, his wounds hadn’t healed and his pain worsened. When prison nurses suggested that he should be transferred to a hospital for specialized care, Barnett reportedly denied the request. Another transfer request was made several weeks later. The patient reported he could “hardly move to sit up in bed,” and he was found to be cold and clammy, with rapid breathing and a rapid heartbeat.

He died from septic shock and acute pancreatitis five days after he was transferred to a local hospital. Barnett’s failure to oversee the prisoner’s declining health and provide him with adequate treatment was described by the DOH as “substandard care” that caused him unnecessary pain in the last weeks of his life.

Barnett’s attorney D. Jeffrey Burnham declined to comment Tuesday, when a Daily Herald reporter reached him by phone.

Barnett was hired by the Department of Corrections in March 2017. She was making $260,000 per year at the time of her firing.

Barnett may petition to reinstate her license after undergoing a clinical skills evaluation and a multidisciplinary evaluation. She must also complete an ethics course. If her license is reinstated, she will be subject to Washington Medical Commission oversight and monitoring, and she would be required to abide by any rules set by the evaluators.

Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; edennis@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @reporterellen

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