The Medical Board of California – responsible for investigating and disciplining physicians – is in danger of being dismantled at the end of the year.
The state Legislature must reauthorize the medical board every four years if the agency is to continue serving as California’s top medical watchdog. The medical board, however, has been plagued with criticism for failing to adequately regulate doctors and protect patients. The ongoing debate on how to best reform the agency reached a tipping point Tuesday during the Assembly’s Business and Professions Committee hearing.
While lawmakers were scheduled to vote on a bill reauthorizing the Medical Board of California, a lack of support for the proposed reforms resulted in a stalemate. Lawmakers opted not to cast their votes on the bill, which now threatens the very existence of the medical board.
“There are some in the Legislature that would rather support and protect doctors than patients,” said Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. “That’s what we saw today.”
Hill, who chairs the Senate’s Business and Professions Committee, authored the medical board’s reauthorization bill. As the Investigative Unit first reported in May, the legislation includes a list of major reforms.
Among them is a requirement for doctors to tell their patients if they have been placed on probation by the medical board for harming patients through poor medical care or even sexual abuse.
However, Assembly members on the committee and the California Medical Association have voiced concerns that the notification process would put some doctors out of business without due process.
“We opposed the probation notification language as it was written because it eroded basic due process rights in the disciplinary process,” said Joanne Adams, associate director of communications for the California Medical Association, who provided a statement to NBC Bay Area's Investigative Unit.
“There was a clear breakdown in the committee process today, and the Assembly prudently chose to take adequate time to address the policy concerns in this complex sunset review bill," Adams said. "We look forward to working with the Legislature to reauthorize the Medical Board and find solutions to consumer concerns that do not violate the basic right to due process."
While a physician’s probation status is posted on the medical board’s website, critics argue most patients are unaware of where to find the information and should, therefore, be informed directly from their doctor.
As of April, more than 600 doctors were practicing while on probation. That represents less than 1 percent of the state’s 110,989 physicians, according to data obtained from the medical board. The related offenses include deadly medical errors, drug use, and sexual assault against patients.
Hill says the legislation would require doctors to disclose their violations to patients if the physician is found guilty of a serious offense or accepts probation as part of a plea. Those provisions would apply to about 40 percent of those on probation. During Tuesday’s Assembly committee hearing, however, other lawmakers, including committee Chair Evan Low, supported a less restrictive plan that would require doctors to disclose their probation only after their cases have been fully adjudicated and the medical board can verify a violation occurred. This would apply to only 10 percent of doctors on probation and does not include those who accept probation as part of a settlement without an admission of any wrongdoing. The two sides refused to budge, so the vote never happened.
The Assembly now has until Friday to act on the bill before it officially dies. While lawmakers could author a new bill to keep the medical board going, they’d still need to reach some kind of compromise to get it passed. If a deal can’t be reached, California’s watchdog agency that’s supposed to protect patients will be disbanded at the end of the year.
“Absolutely, this was a loss for patients across California,” Hill said. “This is a terrible step that we’ve taken, and it’s because of the power of the California Medical Association and the influence they have in this building.”