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Court Rules State Can Use Doc Licensing Fees to Help Bridge Budget Gap

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media, March 5, 2010

California doctors lost the first round in their court fight to speed up the state's processing of medical licenses for some 7,100 new physicians whose clearance is delayed because of state worker furloughs ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But the doctors say they may appeal.

The California Medical Association in October sued the governor saying that the furloughs of three days per month were illegally imposed on the Medical Board of California's 263 workers, whose salaries come exclusively from physician licensing fees paid every two years, not from the state general fund.

In effect, the governor is taking physician money intended for use to make sure competent physicians are available to practice, money he has no right to use, the lawsuit said. California's well-known budget crisis is serious, the CMA acknowledges, but should not be solved by taking physician licensing fees.

"As of Sept. 1, there were 7,192 license applications pending before the Medical Board," the lawsuit said. "Of these pending applications, 1,806 had not completed the initial review period."

With 263 Medical Board workers furloughed each month, the lost time from work amounts to 5,100 hours a month, according to a recent Medical Board report.

Long Do, CMA's director of litigation, says the CMA felt compelled to file the lawsuit because of "the many complaints we had received that the medical board was not able to investigate timely complaints [about doctors] as well as their license applications. We felt this is contributing to the physician shortage problem going on in the state right now."

Qualified physicians who are unlicensed cannot practice; physicians with behavioral or competence issues under investigation continue to practice, and accused but innocent physicians must sit on pins and needles awaiting for clearance because of the furloughs, according to furlough opponents.

CMA President Brennan Cassidy, MD, says the medical board has made great strides to reduce the backlog, "but still cannot promptly do all its work with furloughs in place. By upholding these furloughs, the court is allowing this governor to cut Californians' access to care and jeopardize patient safety, which we believe is completely unacceptable."

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