In Memoriam—UAPD’s Moral Compass

By Stuart A. Bussey, MD, JD, UAPD President

Dr. Ronald Bortman, UAPD’s perennial warrior, passed away peacefully at his northern California home Easter Sunday. He once quoted me a passage from the Renaissance writer Dante Alighieri:  “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those, that in times of moral crises,maintain their neutrality.”  If that is true, Ron shouldn’t be sweating it out.

I first met Ron when we both worked as Medical Consultants for the State of California’s Department of Social Services. He was feisty and unwavering about adjudicating disability claims in a thorough, professional manner. He refused to cave in to the production demands of his non MD bosses. They would tell him to change the ratings of certain cases. He wouldn’t do it, argued at length, eventually got fired by a vindictive manager.  He then went to work as a line Psychiatrist for CDCR in Pelican Bay State Prison. As a UAPD steward, he doggedly defended our contract. He saw, experienced, and fought against inequities in inmate care as well as how our docs were treated. Once again he clashed with Administration…and then was unfairly terminated. He reemerged at the understaffed DMH Coalinga State Hospital, caring for hundreds of SVPs . One of the burly inmates attacked him, shattering his wrist, but not his pride or determination. After DMH refused a transfer, Ron left State service for private practice, frustrated but with his integrity intact.  Those of us who have worked for the State can certainly understand those frustrations.

Apart from the warrior, there were other facets to Ron that greatly helped our Union over the years—loyalty, passion for the truth, creativity, and as he grew older, a certain humility. As a UAPD  steward, Board member, and eventually Vice President he never said no when anyone asked for help. And he was a real problem solver. Many of the prison reforms that the Federal receiver enacted in the past several years were the result of the guidelines that Ron helped to write. He played a large part in the salary and benefit gains of our pre-recession State contracts. He helped organize our LA County unit, wrote Constitutional amendments and resolutions for AFSCME conventions, participated in demonstrations, testified in State legislature on peer review and scope of practice, helped create our Legal Defense fund, and helped present our first CME program. But to me the most important attribute that my friend Ron displayed was to always take the high ground. I told him that he was UAPD’s moral compass.

I am glad to report that Ron’s last few years  working as the only Psychiatrist for Siskiyou County were spent happy and fulfilled (aside from his frustrations with the Medical program cuts to the poor). He spent time at his ranch caring for his mules, horses, and dogs.  He liked to write and read with his loving wife Holly and build model rockets with his two sons, Joshua and Isaac. And root for the Oakland A’s.

The lessons of the life of Ronald Bortman, a hardworking , complex and brave intellectual, should inspire us  to stand up for our principles, even when it is difficult. We must seek out this strength within ourselves. After all, a moral compass can only point you in the right direction, it can’t make you go there.