Patient advocates looking to reform the maligned Medical Board of California were dealt a blow this week as the Legislature passed a bill to renew the watchdog agency for four more years without significant change. The board was created to protect patients from dangerous doctors, but as the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit reported, patients can wait years for the board to deliver justice.
The medical board is set to expire at the end of the year unless the governor signs a bill to renew the state agency. It’s a process that usually runs smoothly, but this year it’s coming down to the wire for the Legislature to pass a bill renewing the board.
Doctors on Probation
The major issue that essentially put the medical board on life support stems from a contentious battle over disciplinary disclosure requirements. Under current law, doctors do not have to notify their patients when the medical board places their license on probation for offenses including deadly medical errors, drug use, and sexual assault against patients.
Probation info about a doctor’s past is posted on the medical board’s website, but critics say it’s difficult to navigate. State Sen. Jerry Hill of San Mateo authored SB 798, which would have forced doctors on probation to tell their patients directly, however the state Assembly gutted that plan before passing the bill on Wednesday.
“There are some in the Legislature that would rather support and protect doctors than patients,” Hill told NBC Bay Area.
The California Medical Association, which represents 43,000 doctors across the state, posed the main opposition against Hill’s disclosure requirement. The association argued that forcing doctors to tell their patients about their probation status would unfairly put doctors out of business without giving them due process.
The Medical Board and Patient Protections
The Medical Board supports SB 798 and maintains that the bill will allow the board to protect patients, despite the lack of disclosure requirement. A spokesperson for the board told NBC Bay Area that the new law will still allow the agency to investigate complaints and “continue to have the same value it’s always had.”
But some critics argue that without major reform, the state should disband the board completely and start from scratch.
State data provided to the Investigative Unit shows that that the average case takes the medical board 909 days to sanction a doctor. The process allows nearly all of those doctors continue practicing during the investigation.
“We need the medical board, but it’s not working for us, it’s working on the doctors behalf, they’re doing things to keep the doctors in practice,” patient advocate Eric Andrist told NBC Bay Area.
Eric Andrist is an outspoken critic of the medical board, which he says failed to issue any disciplinary action after his sister Cali became the victim of medical errors.
“It's crucial that doctors tell their patients when they’ve been placed on probation. It's absolutely ludicrous that this provision has been taken out of the bill,” Andrist said.
California is home to nearly 111,000 practicing doctors. More than 609 are practicing while serving probation. Los Angeles county has the most doctors on probation with 164. In the Bay Area, Alameda tops the list (16), followed by Santa Clara County (14), and Contra Costa County (12).
Gov. Brown has until Oct. 15 to decide whether he will renew the medical board. If signed, SB 798 will also require the board to restructure its process for investigating complaints over the next year, however it is unclear what that restructure will look like.