A Silver Valley physician is scrambling to get back his medical license after learning it was suspended because he’s $25,000 behind in child support.
Dr. Joseph B. Miller Jr. has been in and out of court several times for not making court-ordered $1,000 monthly payments to care for his two teenage boys.
Tuesday, a Spokesman-Review reporter informed Miller that his driver’s and medical licenses have been suspended since April 8.
The next day, Miller was negotiating with state Health and Welfare Department workers to resume those payments to his ex-wife in Tennessee.
State officials say the family physician’s quick response is proof that their new license-suspension program is helping to get more money to kids.
“In recent months, we’ve seen, statewide, an increase in child-support collections of 8 percent,” said Michelle Britton, regional Health and Welfare director. “Our main goal, truly, is not to suspend licenses. It’s to ensure children have the support they need.”
Last month, the state began suspending state-issued licenses for parents who are two months or $2,000 behind. Since then, more than 140 parents owing a combined $3 million in support have lost driving and other privileges.
Before any license is suspended, parents receive two certified letters demanding they send money or sign an agreement to make partial payments. If neither is possible, the parent can request a hearing.
Britton said Miller merely mailed a letter to Health and Welfare explaining that his case was in litigation.
But legal proceedings can go on for years, Britton said. In the meantime, parents still need to make efforts to pay something.
“We can take some latitude, but it’s not good enough to just not pay,” Britton said. “And we want a reasonable payment - $50 a month if you’re making $2,000 is not reasonable.”
During brief interviews Tuesday, Miller, 45, and his attorney said the doctor had not known about the suspensions and maintained the state was in error.
Asked if he was behind in his child support, Miller first said “that’s not important,” then later said “No!” Asked a third time, he said “I’d have to check.”
“It’s a terrible mistake,” attorney Jack Rose said. “What his support amounts should be are all subject to litigation. It’s a matter I don’t think should ever have been reported for this type of action.”
Neither Rose nor Miller responded to follow-up calls on Wednesday, but Miller has maintained in court that he can’t afford to make payments.
The IRS was garnisheeing his wages and he was on the losing side of two big-money lawsuits, one of which later was overturned, court records show.
But a judge didn’t buy that argument in 1995.
Court records showed the family physician and one-time surgeon grossed $69,000 just from his practice in 1994, the last year for which financial records were available. He also owned 2,000 shares of stock, which paid out $16,000 in dividends, received regular payments from a family owned cotton plantation in Louisiana, and collected occasional cash gifts from his father. In 1991, he bought a sailboat.
During a 1995 contempt hearing for failure to pay support, Magistrate Eugene Marano asked Miller why he hadn’t tried to liquidate some of his assets. Miller said he didn’t know he could, records show.
Marano suggested Miller was lying, and said the doctor had a habit of paying only when forced to. Marano recalled a previous hearing in which he’d threatened Miller with jail.
“As I remember it, I ordered him to pay the entire amount of back child support and/or go to jail until he did,” Marano said. “And lo and behold, it’s as if by magic, he paid it. Found the money.”
Before sentencing, Miller told the judge he would do whatever was in his power to not get behind again.
“I will somehow try to find a way to do it,” Miller told the judge.
But Marano sent Miller to jail for the weekend and allowed him to go on work release for 30 days.
“I cannot imagine a person who has so little regard for his children that he basically thinks sailboat moorage fees are more important than his children,” Marano said.
Two years later, that case is under appeal and Miller, according to Health and Welfare, is another $25,250 behind.
That frustrates Miller’s ex-wife Sandy, who is raising sons Jonathan and Christopher by herself in Tennessee.
After leaving her husband in the late 1980s, Sandy Miller moved in with her parents. She got on welfare and put herself through nursing school while raising the two boys.
She now makes a good living and has a place of her own in Memphis.
“I get by and make an OK salary,” she said in a telephone interview. “But we don’t have a whole lot of extras.”
She said money was tight recently when one of her sons broke a leg while running on the school playground. She also worries about making ends meet next year, when she hopes to send 12-year-old Jonathan to a private school for junior high.
“Certainly right now I could use the money,” she said.
State officials said they would reinstate Miller’s licenses once they had a formal agreement that Miller would make some payments to his ex-wife.