by Brittany Hailer
UPDATE, October 5, 2022: After learning of PINJ’s investigation and subsequent story, Dan Laurent, vice president of corporate communications of Allegheny Health Network, informed the newsroom that Wilson Bernales has been suspended pending assessment of his qualifications and state license.
“As you have noted, Dr. Wilson Bernales is a PA licensed physician and he is employed by AHN to exclusively practice at the Allegheny County Jail. The locums physician staffing agency that AHN works with vetted Dr. Bernales’ qualifications, confirmed his good standing with the PA licensing board, and facilitated AHN’s hiring of him to provide care at the jail.
In light of new information that has come to light about Dr. Bernales’ work history, we are looking further into his state licensing approval and revisiting our own processes and protocols for hiring physicians to work at the jail. Based on this new information, Dr. Bernales has also been suspended while a fuller assessment of his qualifications and state license is conducted. In the interim, Dr. Bernales’ clinical duties at the jail will be assumed by another AHN doctor to ensure there is no disruption in services.”
Wilson Bernales, one of two medical doctors currently employed at the Allegheny County Jail, has had his medical license suspended, revoked or denied in at least eight different states.
Bernales’ resume tells a story of failed board exams, residency and internship suspensions, and falsified information submitted to medical licensing boards across the country.
“It is a domino effect,” Bernales said of his multi-state license denials and forfeitures. “That’s the problem with having multiple licenses.”
Bernales has had his license to practice medicine revoked, denied or suspended in Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia, and Wyoming. Two states–Oklahoma and Delaware–have since placed Bernales on probation following his suspension.
But, Bernales is free to practice medicine in Pennsylvania.
In 2016, when the Wyoming Medical Board suspended Bernales’ license for five years, it concluded, “Bernales lacks the capacity for honesty, trustworthiness. and moral integrity necessary for a physician,” and, “…has failed to meet his burden of proving that he is able to safely, skillfully and competently practice medicine.”
Bernales said he was hired by a third-party recruiter in July and will continue to contract with the Allegheny County Jail for one year. As a traveling doctor, he said he specializes in “underserved areas,” but hopes to make Pennsylvania his permanent home.
Jail spokesman Jesse Geleysne said that jail administrators interview and perform a criminal background check on new hires, but explained that Bernales is employed through Allegheny Health Network, the jail’s contracted health care service provider.
“Any licensing and credentialing issues would go through AHN,” Geleynse wrote in an email.
Bernales’ hire comes at a time when the jail continues to report medical staffing vacancies and a survey conducted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work reported widespread concerns about medical treatment. Last week, Anthony Talotta, an intellectually disabled man, died hours after he was released from the jail’s custody. Since March 2020, he is the 17th man to die after entering the facility.
Bernales and Donald Stechschulte, the jail’s two medical doctors, are responsible for treating over 1,500 incarcerated persons housed in the facility.
“It’s just the two of us,” Bernales said.
‘A significant history of fraud and deception’
It is hard to track Bernales’ penalties and career timeline across the country.
When the Connecticut Medical Examining Board investigated Bernales in 2017, it characterized his conduct as showing “a significant history of fraud and deception.” Bernales forged letters of recommendation and demonstrated an “extreme disorganization that may present a threat to the health and safety of persons in Connecticut,” the board reported.
Bernales admitted to forging recommendation letters in his 2012 application for licensure in Virginia, according to medical board documents. He also submitted two false evaluations from former employers to the Virginia Board of Medicine and violated testing protocols when he brought a cell phone and pager into testing rooms during an examination, according to medical board documents.
Bernales failed to report that he was asked to leave residencies or fellowships on applications to more than one state licensing board, resulting in his suspension or denial. In order to become a licensed physician or surgeon, medical school graduates are required to complete further training in residencies, internships and fellowships.
In January 2002, Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Georgia, terminated Bernales from an internship following a “dispute” he had with a resident “concerning the intubation of a patient who had a living will,” according to Connecticut Medical Examining Board licensing documents.
The Floyd Medical Center residency program director wrote to the Connecticut board stating that Bernales was dismissed, “after receiving feedback from multiple individuals, including our residents, local community, and attending faculty.”
Less than a year later, between July 2002 and June 2003, Bernales participated in a residency program at MercyHealth System in Janesville, Wisconsin. However, MercyHealth did not offer Bernales a contract to complete his second year of residency when the program learned that Bernales had repeatedly failed the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), a three-step board exam, according to court documents.
Bernales informed MercyHealth of his first-step exam failures when he applied for the residency, but did not disclose that he failed the third and final step of the examination four times between 1997 and 1999, before passing it in December 2002.
Bernales sued MercyHealth for racial discrimination and lost. Records do not indicate if Bernales was ever licensed in Wisconsin.
MercyHealth could not release a statement regarding Bernales’ residency or lawsuit without his consent, said spokesperson Therese Michels. Bernales said in an interview that he was never asked to leave MercyHealth and that he completed a one-year residency.
Three years after MercyHealth, in February 2006, Bernales was suspended again, but this time from the Obstetrics Fellowship in the Department of Family Medicine of the Louisiana State University Medical Center in Lafayette, which he failed to report to the Virginia Board of Medicine.
Bernales said he served in the United States Army from 1998 to 2000 and suffered an injury that made it hard for him to walk. He said that he struggled in residencies and examinations due to his disability status. PINJ submitted a request for Bernales’ military records. That request is pending.
“I didn’t think I could be a doctor again,” Bernales said, “I was out of touch with medicine.”
The chronology of Bernales’ known license, internship and residency suspensions are as follows:
- 2022, Oklahoma: 5 year probation following 5-year license suspension
- 2019, Wyoming: Petition for license reinstatement denied, following a 5-year suspension in 2017
- 2017, Connecticut: License revoked
- 2017, Delaware: License suspension stayed, put on probation and fined $1,000.
- 2016, New York: License denied, precluded from practicing medicine
- 2016, New Mexico: License revoked
- 2015, Virginia: License denied
- 2006, Louisiana: License denied
- 2006, Louisiana: Terminated from internship at Louisiana State University Medical Center
- 2003, Wisconsin: Not invited back to complete two-year residency at MercyHealth Hospital
- 2002, Georgia: Terminated from Floyd Medical Center residency
Pennsylvania licensure and discipline
Bernales is free to practice medicine in Pennsylvania, but he has faced discipline in the Commonwealth in the past.
In 2012, the medical board granted Bernales his medical license after reviewing his residency and internship terminations. The board concluded, “Petitioner’s difficulties in adjusting to the mores and mythology of graduate medical training in the United States is understandable given his five year hiatus from medical practice and tour of duty in the United States Army.”
In 2016, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Professional and Occupational Affairs considered whether the State Board of Medicine should suspend, revoke or discipline Bernales’ medical license after he faced penalties in New York for submitting fraudulent information on his licensing application.
Bernales’ terminations from the Floyd Medical Center in Rome, Georgia and the Louisiana State University Medical Center in Lafayette were considered in Pennsylvania’s inquiry, but, because Bernales had disclosed that history to the board when he applied for his license in 2011, it concluded there were “no more aggravating factors to warrant more severe discipline.” He was fined $1,000.
Bernales has passed the three-step examinations of the USMLE and is registered with the Federation of State Medical Boards, according to Mark Walters, deputy communications director for Pennsylvania.
“All licensed physicians are required to complete 100 hours of continuing medical education as a condition of biennial licensure renewal,” Walters wrote in an email. “The Board does not track where continuing education is completed.”
On his licensing application in Pennsylvania, Bernales included his MercyHealth residency in Wisconsin, although he was asked to leave that residency after one year due to his repeatedly failing examinations.
Walters explained that residency programs submit an applicant’s attendance to the board to verify enrollment.
“A discrepancy is issued when [post graduate year] forms submitted by a residency program do not total one year of training…Under those circumstances, an applicant would not meet the requirements for licensure,” Walters said.
Bethany Hallam, county councilperson at-large and Jail Oversight Board member said hiring competent medical staff at the jail should be the county’s priority, especially given the facility’s two-year death rate.
“This has to stop,” Hallam said. “The quality of care at the ACJ should be equal to—if not greater than—the quality of care we all receive at the numerous world-class hospitals in the region, some of which are barely more than a stone’s throw away from the jail, where our fellow community members continue to perish at an unforgivably high pace.”
Bernales says he treats those housed in the county jail as he would treat patients in a typical family practice.
“I treat everything from cough and cold, to more serious illnesses,” Bernales said. “As a family practitioner, you treat cradle to grave–try to keep the inmates as healthy as possible.
Photo by Jake Dabkowski
Brittany Hailer is the director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @BrittanyHailer.
Update: 10/5/2022: This story was updated to include comment from Mark Walters, deputy communications director for Pennsylvania, regarding Wilson Bernales’ post graduate training information. Walters also provided the state department’s 2012 order granting Bernales his medical license and that information was updated.