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St. Petersburg neurosurgeon, council candidate won't get city business during campaign

City officials say sending workers to Dr. David McKalip would create a conflict of interest.
Published Mar. 14, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — At City Council meetings and on a website, blogger and tea party activist Dr. David McKalip often lambastes city officials about costly employee pensions, benefits and salaries.

But at his medical office, the neurosurgeon treats city employees injured on the job.

St. Petersburg has paid McKalip, who is running for the City Council, nearly $31,000 to treat four injured workers since 2009.

That practice will soon end.

With McKalip being a frequent critic of city workers, several council members wonder why administrators send workers to the doctor.

"It does seem like a conflict of interest," said council Chairman Karl Nurse.

"Based on his own statements, any benefits to city employees are a waste of taxpayers' money," Charlie Gerdes said. "It doesn't seem to be a prudent choice of doctors. I intend to have a talk with staffers about this."

City staffers have decided that McKalip will no longer treat city workers while he seeks office.

"That would be a conflict," said Cathryn Bernoskie, the city's risk manager. "We will not assign any new cases."

McKalip stressed that he does not mix medicine with politics. "If the city is deciding to not send me patients because I am running for office, that is their choice," he said. "I look forward to serving the citizens in political office and to serve patients as a doctor."

City attorneys plan to update the council during a meeting today about injured firefighter Brad Westphal, who was treated by McKalip.

After serving nearly 30 years, Westphal suffered a catastrophic back injury on a routine call. His 2009 injury led to three surgeries, a left leg that is partly paralyzed, a brace, a cane and constant pain. It seemed clear he would never again run into burning buildings.

One point of contention surfaced when McKalip would not declare that Westphal had reached a status called maximum medical improvement, which means he would never improve or heal completely.

When his workers' compensation benefits expired, Westphal was not medically capable of returning to work and wasn't eligible for disability benefits without an MMI ruling. To survive financially, Westphal withdrew from the city's deferred retirement program — which he estimates cost him more than $200,000 — to draw his pension early to pay bills.

He then sued the city.

Based on the case, a state appeals court this month found part of Florida's workers' compensation insurance system unconstitutional.

The 1st District Court of Appeal struck down a law that placed a two-year limit on temporary disability benefits. That limit cut off disability payments to Westphal, leaving him in what the court described as a "legal twilight zone."

The city eventually reversed course and agreed with independent medical experts that Westphal should be granted MMI status and begin receiving total disability payments.

On Wednesday, Westphal said he picked McKalip, who took over the practice from Westphal's former doctor. He said he is satisfied with McKalip's care.

After the Times reported in January that McKalip was seeking office, Westphal said he wanted to question McKalip about a possible conflict. McKalip's office then referred him to another doctor, he said.

Westphal said he has never read McKalip's blog. He questions if the doctor's political beliefs played a role in not issuing the MMI order. "I wonder if he didn't want to hurt his chance to get on council," Westphal said.

McKalip declined to talk about a relationship with a patient. But he added that he "routinely fights to get patients all the benefits they can."

McKalip regularly attends council meetings to oppose costly projects and spending and writes on his blog, sunbeamtimes.com, about how the city spends tax dollars. He also writes about insurance companies, taxes and Obamacare.

In a June post, he doesn't entirely fault rank-and-file workers for the benefits, saying: "The blame falls on the shoulders of years of politicians who have kicked this can down the road all in the name of getting re-elected."

Mayor Bill Foster said McKalip isn't playing politics with injured workers. "Dr. McKalip is a fine physician, and his political views or criticism as a taxpayer have no bearing on his skill and ability to treat the injured," Foster said.

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.

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