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Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher February 21, 2011

Wisconsin Republican Party says doctors were handing out phony sick notes to “striking union members” during protests in Madison

Among the thousands of government workers who demonstrated against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker over collective bargaining rights were men and women wearing white lab coats and carrying clipboards. Some had stethoscopes around their necks.

According to the Wisconsin Republican Party, they were doctors who wrote excuses for the protesters to explain their absence from work.

"Phony sick notes passed out to excuse striking union members," the GOP charged in a news release issued Feb. 19, 2011.

As a result of teachers calling in sick, several school districts have had to close their doors during the ongoing protests, including Madison for four days and Milwaukee for one. The GOP argues that amounted to a strike, because the closings occurred after the state’s largest teachers union called on all Wisconsin residents to attend the Madison rallies.

However, no state, local government or public school employees -- all of whom would be affected by Walker’s plan to curtail collective bargaining rights -- have formally declared a strike.

But what about the rest of the GOP’s claim?

Featured Fact-check

Did doctors roam the crowds outside the state Capitol handing out phony sick notes to government workers who missed work to protest?

The GOP news release cited a YouTube video posted Feb. 19 by the MacIver Institute, which describes itself as a Madison-based "think tank that promotes free markets, individual freedom, personal responsibility and limited government."

One of the women dressed in medical garb -- her name is not given -- tells the interviewer, "We are writing sick notes for anybody who needs them."

"Who’s sick?," the interviewer asks.

"Everybody is sick of Scott Walker," the woman says.

Another woman identifies herself as being one of a "group of doctors representing ourselves, not necessarily our workplaces, providing work excuses for teachers and other union members who need them."

The interviewer also confronts a man, apparently a doctor, who was filling out forms and asks if what he was doing was fraud. "We’re not handing out anything. We’re assessing people and dealing with them appropriately in the privacy of their own medical consultations," the man replies.  

We found other evidence that doctors were handing out notes to public workers to give to their employers:

  • The Associated Press quoted doctor Lou Sanner as saying he gave out hundreds of such notes. Many protesters seemed to be suffering from stress, said Sanner, a family-practice physician and faculty member at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
  • WKOW-TV in Madison aired a report from the demonstrations that included an interview with doctor Kathy Oriel, who is also a family-practice physician and faculty member at the medical school.

Asked on camera if she thought she could get in trouble for issuing the notes, Oriel replied:  

"Certainly. We think it’s worth the risk to support the people and we feel very strongly that these are professionals who really would like to be in school, they would like to be in school with our classes, but they’re put in a position where they really have no choice."

We tried calling Sanner and Oriel but were referred to a medical school spokeswoman. We also called two other doctors at the medical school who have been linked to the sick notes. Their offices referred us to a phone number -- (608) 890-9220 -- that offers a recorded message saying the medical school "will thoroughly investigate these allegations and take appropriate actions as indicated."

That phone line allows callers to record a comment and says people wishing to comment also can send an e-mail to [email protected].

Meanwhile, Milwaukee Public Schools officials have also promised an investigation, saying teachers who were "absent without leave or who called in sick since the protests started in Madison" could face disciplinary action.

After days of protests, the state’s largest teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said Feb. 20, 2011, that if teachers are not otherwise off, they should report back to the classroom. (Some districts were off Feb. 21, 2011 for Presidents Day.)

That’s enough for our checkup.

The Wisconsin Republican Party claimed that doctors passed out "phony sick notes" to "excuse striking union members." It’s clear that doctors outside the Capitol were distributing notes that public employees attending demonstrations could use in an attempt to explain their absence from work. None of the public employees, however, have gone on strike.

We rate the GOP’s statement Mostly True. 

Our Sources

Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing, Lou Sanner medical doctor license

Wisconsin Department of Regulation and Licensing, Kathy Oriel license, "Doctors who handed out excuse notes surprised by response,"Feb. 21, 2011

WKOW-TV, "Handing out doctor’s notes"

MacIver Institute, "Wis doctors hand out fake excuses to protesters" video, Feb. 19, 2011

Wisconsin Republican Party, news release, Feb. 19, 2011

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "MPS intends to reopen Tuesday,"Feb. 20, 2011

Milwaukee Public Schools, "Questions our families are asking" question-and-answer sheet

Wisconsin Education Association Council, "WEAC president talks about next steps" news release, Feb. 20, 2011

University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Dr. Kathy Oriel bio

University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Dr. Lou Sanner bio

MacIver Institute website, About page

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Wisconsin Republican Party says doctors were handing out phony sick notes to “striking union members” during protests in Madison

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