Bad Medicine

Has the St. Louis College of Health Careers failed to deliver on promises of a good education and rewarding jobs?

"I had a blank City of St. Louis high school diploma, and I had checked and found out what kind of font they had used, and I printed out their names onto a piece of paper and then [copied] it onto the diploma," the employee explains.

Scott Tapp, a former anatomy and physiology instructor, says he saw employees create school transcripts for former students when their grades were missing from their files.

"Transcripts from our school were just made up because they couldn't find them," he says. "They'd just give them all A's."

Compare and contrast: Arlisa's real signature is 
Compare and contrast: Arlisa's real signature is above.
The college also offers classes in a suburban 
cookie-cutter building on Butler Hill Road in south 
Jennifer Silverberg
The college also offers classes in a suburban cookie-cutter building on Butler Hill Road in south county.

Cindy Ness, director of nursing and allied health at the college from 2000 to 2001, confirms she saw an employee falsifying diplomas and other documents.

"It seemed matter-of-fact, like this needs to be done," Ness explains. "Lori [Nichols] came and told me what was happening, and she and I decided we weren't going to have any part of it."

One of the documents in question is a physical-examination form for Arlisa Tally. Students who interned at medical offices, like Arlisa, were required to visit a doctor for a physical exam, which included a test for tuberculosis and immunization for hepatitis.

The doctor's form, entered as evidence in the Nichols' lawsuit, noted Arlisa's height at five-foot-one and weight at one hundred pounds. No serious medical problems were listed, and the doctor wrote that Arlisa had been tested in 2001 for tuberculosis and immunized for hepatitis. The doctor's name is illegible.

But Arlisa says the exam never took place.

Her actual height is five-foot-three; her weight at the time was eighty-five pounds. She says she was never immunized or tested for tuberculosis before interning at St. Mary's Hospital in East St. Louis, where one of her jobs was drawing blood.

The jagged signature at the bottom of the physical exam looks nothing like Arlisa's right-slanting, bubbly cursive. "I never wrote like that in my life," she says.

Scott Tapp says employees found names of doctors in the phone book and forged their signatures, as well as student signatures on bogus physical exams.

"I observed a campus director forging physicals and instructing admission representatives on how to do it," he says.

Steve Barsam of Kirkwood and Rush Robinson of Maryland Heights founded the St. Louis College of Health Careers in 1981. The men worked together at Maryville University where Robinson was a biology instructor. Barsam managed the science lab.

The college's mission is to train students for healthcare jobs that pay between $8 and $16 an hour. Ninety percent of the students are women. Many of them are trying to escape minimum-wage jobs. Others are welfare moms whose checks will stop if they don't seek job training.

Last year the college collected $3.6 million from tuition, books and fees, up from $2.8 million the previous year, according to financial statements filed with the U.S. Department of Education. The lion's share of that money comes from federal financial aid. In 2001, 97 percent of the students at the nearly all-black St. Louis city campus received federal grants, and 88 percent also received federal loans.

Many former employees claim students aren't getting what they paid for because Barsam and Robinson run the school on the cheap.

"They would drive up in their BMWs, and the students didn't have heat in their classrooms," says a former program director who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Described by former employees as "arrogant" and "aloof," Barsam and Robinson are unaffectionately referred to as "the boys" by their numerous detractors.

"Barsam and Robinson wouldn't even speak to students," says Carol Worth, a former medical-billing instructor. "Half the time they wouldn't even speak to [the teachers]."

Lark Riehn, a former business officer at the college, says the owners are being unfairly criticized. "They really did have the students' best interests at heart -- to take people without much of an education and give them a career in the healthcare industry," says Riehn. "It was incredible to see the stories after nine or ten months from students who started with nothing."

Citing "confidentiality" issues, both Robinson and Barsam declined to comment on the allegations.

The college's attorney, Daniel Wilke, last week issued the following statement: "St. Louis College of Health Careers does believe it is delivering its educational promises to students. That is its mission, and it feels that it is living up to that mission, and will strive to maintain the quality of the school experience it provides to its students."

Former instructors, meanwhile, say they constantly filled in for teachers who either quit or were fired. The teacher turnover rate from 2001 to 2002 was an astonishing 76 percent, according to notes by a state employee of the Department of Higher Education who visited the school in 2002.

"Steve [Barsam]'s motto was, 'Change is good,'" says the former program director. "Change in staff is not good. How can you keep a quality staff if they don't provide you with the supplies you need for class?"

Students routinely received their books weeks -- even months -- late. Worth says she taught a medical-billing class where twenty students shared five books. "The class started in September, [and students] didn't get books until mid-November," she says.

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