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As Side Effect of Fiscal Constraints, Dangerous Docs Go Undisciplined in California

More than 700 doctors in California sanctioned for wrongdoing by hospitals and other health care organizations haven’t faced any disciplinary action from the California medical board. And according to consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which compiled the numbers, the medical board’s inaction puts public safety on the line.

The group sent a letter this week to California Gov. Jerry Brown, urging him to take action to protect patients. Most of the physicians had been identified by other health organizations as “unable to practice safely,” having “substandard or inadequate skill level,” or giving “substandard or inadequate care.” More than 100 were identified by peer reviewers as posing an “immediate threat to health or safety” of patients.

California’s medical board isn’t the first of the state’s regulators to be flagged for giving dangerous caregivers a pass.

Following a series of ProPublica reports in 2009 about the failure of the state nursing board to discipline nurses convicted of serious misconduct, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced most of the members on the California Board of Registered Nursing and began issuing sanctions against some of the nurses we identified.

What’s unclear is whether the stepped-up enforcement by the nursing board has continued in light of the state’s budget problems. Records from a Board of Registered Nursing meeting in May showed members discussing the need for more enforcement staff—a challenge, given the state’s hiring freeze: “We lack the ability to fill the necessary, approved positions, or to backfill our existing vacancies,” the meeting minutes noted.

Vacancies are also a factor for the Medical Board of California, which is responsible for licensing doctors and suspending or revoking licenses for serious violations. A Medical Board spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times, “We have a 20 percent vacancy rate and we’re trying to focus on our core functions.”

Meantime, the board is taking an average of more than 400 days to complete an investigation into a doctor, even though state law sets a deadline of 180 days, reported the Times.

California isn’t the only state with a troubled record of disciplining doctors. An earlier report by Public Citizen found that, across the country, more than half of the doctors listed in the National Practitioner Data Bank as having had their clinical privileges either restricted or revoked by their health care organizations did not face any state licensing action. That percentage was as high as 70 percent to 77 percent in eight states—Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Tennessee.  

To see how your state compares, you can check the full report [PDF] or take a look at Public Citizen’s ranking of disciplinary rates [PDF] for doctors. 

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