The Dalles Wasco County Commissioner Scott Hege was “astounded” to learn that almost $250,000 in medical bills for a deceased murder suspect’s brain surgery might have to be paid by local taxpayers.
“When I heard that, my jaw hit the floor and I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he said.
Hege said the county will be placed in a precarious position if it has to pay the bills from Legacy Emanuel Hospital in Portland for the late Roark David Smith’s care on Jan. 11. He said the commission and budget committee members are already looking at how to overcome an almost $400,000 increase in employee retirement benefit costs and $700,000 in lost federal compensation for road maintenance. In addition, he said La Clinica Del Cariño is moving out of facilities leased from the county at almost $100,000 per year. And Mid-Columbia Center for
Living will move into the new La Clinica building, leaving the county without another $50,000 in lost rental income.
“This situation with Mr. Smith’s medical bills bothers me greatly because it’s going to be taking away resources that we need,” said Hege. “I don’t understand how an agreement made in court between the attorney for an accused murderer and the judge could end up with us footing the bill.”
He was referring to an assurance given by William Falls, the defense attorney, to Judge Paul Crowley that his client’s surgery would be paid for by the Veterans Administration. Smith, 53, who died of a heart attack Jan. 15 in his jail cell, served in the Navy for several years.
According to reports, he received about $180,000 in compensation in 2012 for a partial disability claim. The claim had been filed years earlier and alleged that Smith had begun having depression and other mental problems after the death of his daughter while he was in the military.
Wasco County Veterans Service Officer Russell Jones said it will be difficult to get the VA to pay Smith’s respective bills of $206,000, $31,500 and $7,730 for the surgery that took place Jan. 11. He said it is customary for the federal agency to stop providing benefits when a veteran is incarcerated, especially if the medical condition is not service related.
“This is the first time that I’ve heard about something like this,” said Jones. “I will do what I can but there is a good possibility the VA is going to deny this claim.”
Smith was arrested Feb. 25, 2009, and charged with the shooting deaths of Patti Hong, 46, and her son, Randy Hong, 23, at their West Chinook Street home.
In recent weeks, Falls’ argued that legal proceedings against his client needed to be suspended until after his surgery. He said the tumor might be responsible for Smith’s disorder and, following the operation, he should be given a new mental evaluation.
Falls could not be reached for comment.
Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley said in an interview the day after Smith’s death that the surgery took place without complications. He said the state medical examiner determined following an autopsy Jan. 15 that the medical procedure did not contribute to the defendant’s death.
The district attorney had protested Smith having the surgery, arguing before Crowley that medical professionals had known about the tumor since 2007 and concurred that it wasn’t causing the defendant’s diagnosed delusional disorder.
“This is frustrating and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Nisley on Wednesday. “I think the defense should have been required to show evidence that the surgery had to be done because it threatened Mr. Smith’s ability to function.”
The type of tumor Smith had is known as a meningioma and common in adults over 50 and generally benign, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The medical center says many of these tumors produce no symptoms and require no treatment other than periodic observation but some need to be removed and/or subjected to radiation treatments because they cause seizures, memory loss, severe headaches, hearing loss, changes in vision or spastic weakness in the legs and arms.
Smith was sent to the Oregon State Hospital for a mental evaluation a few months after confessing to a 9-1-1 dispatcher that he had walked across the street from his home in 2009 and shot Patti and Randy. He later recanted that statement and said it had been made under duress because he had been poisoned by his ex-wife in a plot to put him behind bars.
Several months after his arrest, Smith was sent to the Oregon State Hospital for a mental evaluation. In late 2011, Judge Donald Hull heard the testimony of three mental health specialists and determined that Smith was competent to assist in his own defense. He said the subject understood the nature of the charges against him and the potential consequences if he was found guilty by jurors.
Following that ruling, Smith was moved to the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities for the start of legal proceedings to prepare for his Feb. 5, 2013, trial.
Jim Weed, jail director, said he received the bills from Legacy because Smith was an inmate at the time of the surgery but the charges were outside the scope of care provided by NORCOR. He said inmates are given medications and taken to see a doctor or dentists when there is an emergency need.
“Frankly, I hope the VA pay these bills because it’s going to be a h—- of a whack to Wasco County,” he said.
Hege said if the county ends up having to pay Smith’s bills, the loss of that money is likely to bring employee layoffs and/or service cuts.