Legislators threaten to kill state medical board

by Lisa Girion and Scott Glover, Los Angeles Times

In an unusual display of concern, lawmakers overseeing the Medical Board of California have threatened to dissolve the agency unless it "shows significant progress" in protecting patients from dangerous doctors.

In a letter, state Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Richard Gordon (D-Menlo Park) called on the board to be more aggressive in monitoring the state’s 100,000-plus physicians.

Price said that the letter reflected the consensus of the 11 lawmakers who sit on the committee charged with evaluating whether the board should be reauthorized or allowed to expire, or "sunset." The lawmakers want action ‘ not just assurances, Price said.

"The board needs to be more responsive," he said. "We want to see some positive steps."

The letter, addressed to Medical Board President Sharon Levine, cites a Los Angeles Times investigative report that detailed cases in which doctors continued to practice despite having prescribed drugs to multiple patients who fatally overdosed. In some instances, the deaths occurred as the doctor was under investigation by the board and the inquiry dragged on for months or years.

"When the [board] finds such issues, it is imperative that [it] take swift and certain action," the April 1 letter states.

Price and Gordon also criticized the board for failing to make better use of so-called interim suspension orders through which it can ask a judge to halt a doctor’s prescribing immediately in egregious cases.

"Clearly it is troubling that the board does not seek more ISOs, given the great potential for [patient] harm," the lawmakers stated in their letter.

They said that if they did not "receive firm commitments from the board" showing significant progress in these and other areas, it would be dissolved as of Jan. 1.

Lawmakers rarely make concerns about consumer boards so public.

"This is quite unusual," said Julianne D’Angelo Fellmeth, a public interest lawyer who has monitored the board on behalf of the Legislature.

Fellmeth said the letter makes clear the committee’s frustration at the board’s failure to implement reforms imposed by the Legislature in the past and its failure to hire enforcement officers after the committee "went to bat" for the funding amid the state’s budget crisis.

The legislators criticized the board’s hiring record in the face of "major enforcement problems." That’s a signal, Fellmeth said, that the committee considers protecting patients from dangerous doctors as the board’s highest mission.

"When it doesn’t work," she said, "people die."

The lawmakers also asked board officials to explain their policy on "stipulated settlements" with doctors accused of misconduct. The request was prompted by an Orange County Register article that revealed that doctors were routinely able to negotiate lighter penalties than board disciplinary guidelines called for, even in cases in which patients were killed or seriously injured.

The letter from Price and Gordon follows a hearing in Sacramento in March that was dominated by emotional testimony from parents of victims of prescription drug overdoses. Many wore matching T-shirts with the word "ENOUGH" on the front. They criticized the board for doing little or nothing to stop doctors recklessly using their prescription pads.

At the hearing, Levine faced tough questions from lawmakers regarding the agency’s enforcement efforts.

Price and Gordon said patients "deserve a proactive Medical Board that places patient protection and interests first, ahead of physician interests."

Levine did not respond Thursday to requests for comment.

"There are some very serious problems at the medical board," Gordon said in an interview. "We wanted to get their attention."