The 15-member board that monitors physicians in California Friday declared its neutrality on pending state legislation that would require doctors to notify their patients if they are put on probation for serious violations, including gross negligence, sexual misconduct and felony convictions related to the care they provide.
The decision by the Medical Board of California to steer clear of the fray comes despite fierce opposition to the legislation by physicians and other licensed medical professionals.
The bill, authored by Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), would also require doctors and other medical practitioners to tell their patients if they are on probation because of a mental illness or other cognitive disability that impedes their ability to practice safely.
If signed into law, the proposal would affect only a tiny fraction of California’s doctors. About 500 of the roughly 102,000 licensed physicians practicing in California were on probation, for a variety of offenses, as of the end of September last year, according to Consumers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group that founded Consumer Reports magazine.
At a meeting Friday in Los Angeles, the medical board voted 13 to 2 to adopt a motion recommended by its staff to sit out the political fight over the legislation — if certain amendments to the bill are adopted.
One of the amendments the board is requesting would make the bill more flexible in emergency situations, when patients need immediate attention and a doctor would not have time to communicate the required information. Another one would lift the notification requirement when patients don’t know in advance who their doctor will be.
The Medical Board of California has the power to investigate and discipline doctors. It can place physicians on probation, but doctors may continue to practice under certain conditions, if the board deems it safe.
Currently, clinicians are required to notify hospitals and malpractice insurers when they are placed on probation. They don’t have to tell their patients, but the information is publicly available on the board’s BreEZe website.
However, supporters of the bill say the website is too complicated to navigate and most patients wouldn’t think of checking a physician’s record online.
Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, said that by declining to endorse the bill, the board made it clear that it opposes real disclosure to consumers. Last October, the medical board denied a petition by Consumers Union seeking a similar notification process.
It is “the height of hypocrisy” for the board to spend time and resources on educating the public about its website, but refuse to give consumers the information in a more direct and user-friendly way, Balber said.
Speaking at Friday’s meeting, board member Dr. Howard Krauss expressed concern about how such a law could be enforced in the privacy of a doctor’s office. He also fretted about the time doctors would need to discuss their probation status with patients.
Krauss also echoed concerns previously expressed by the California Medical Association, which has argued that the proposed law would essentially put affected physicians out of work by severely restricting their ability to practice.
“[The California Medical Board] is already the best in the union,” Krauss said, referring to an analysis by Consumer Reports published in March. “It is ironic that we have become a target for this type of legislation.”
The Consumer Reports analysis, which examined every state medical board’s website for search capabilities, complaints, doctor identifying information, and other factors, gave California’s the highest ranking. The report did find, however, that even in California, getting this information meant searching through lengthy documents and legal jargon.
In its current form, Hill’s bill would require providers to notify patients in writing if they are facing disciplinary actions by the medical board, osteopathic board, podiatry board, acupuncture board or Board of Chiropractic Examiners for serious offenses that could compromise their ability to practice competently.
If approved and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the bill would take effect July 1, 2018.
In a separate but related matter, the medical board voted to endorse a bill that would authorize it to establish a health and wellness program for doctors in need of rehabilitation from substance abuse or mental illness.
Critics pointed out that a similar program was shut down in 2008 after failing several audits. Balber said the past program allowed doctors who were caught abusing drugs to choose a treatment option instead of disciplinary action.
The California Medical Association, arguing for the bill, said the proposed program is intended not as a diversionary tactic but to aid physicians in times of personal crisis.
“Our primary goal is patient protection,” said board member Dr. Ronald Lewis. “Addicted people deserve rehabilitation; they are not bad people. This allows them to come out and say ‘I need help.’”