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CA Bill Would Limit Scope of Probation for Physicians

News  |  By Doug Desjardins  
   March 06, 2017

The legislation would prohibit the state medical board from entering probation agreements with physicians accused of felonies. Critics say the measure sidesteps the issue of patient notification.

This story originally appeared in California Healthfax.

A bill introduced in the California Assembly would create a tougher review process for physicians accused of actions that cause harm to patients, but advocacy groups say the legislation doesn't go far enough to protect patients.

Assembly Bill 505, authored by assembly member Anna Caballero (D-Salinas), would prohibit the Medical Board of California from entering into settlement agreements involving probation with physicians if they're accused of felony-level transgressions.

As written, the bill would "prohibit the board from entering into any stipulation for disciplinary action, including placing a licensee on probation, if the operative accusation includes specified acts."

Those acts include a felony conviction involving harm to a patient, drug or alcohol use that results in harm to a patient, or sexual abuse or exploitation of a patient.

The bill is supported by the California Medical Association (CMA), which says AB 505 will allow due process for physicians, but won't allow doctors accused of the worst crimes to settle a case with probation.

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"AB 505 takes settlement for probation off the table for serious offenses that put patients at risk," said Joanne Adams, associate director of communications for the CMA. "Instead, these allegations will go through a full hearing process so that the Medical Board has a finding of fact based on evidence before deciding upon disciplinary actions."

No Patient Notification
However, advocacy group Consumer Watchdog says AB 505 sidesteps the related issue of whether patients should be notified when a physician is on probation.

Under current law, physicians are not required to notify patients if they are on probation, even if the allegations against them involve sexual abuse. Consumer Watchdog has petitioned the Medical Board and state legislators to change the law and make patient notification a requirement.

"This bill is attempting to head off legislation that would require doctors to disclose their probationary status to patients," said Carmen Balber, executive director for Consumer Watchdog.

Lisa McGiffert, director of the Safe Patient Project for advocacy group Consumers Union, described the bill as a "diversion" and suggested the wording of AB 505 makes some of its provisions difficult to enforce.

"The bill states that the review process will be required in cases where drugs or alcohol are 'directly' involved in patient harm," said McGiffert. "Unless someone actually sees a doctor ingesting drugs before an incident, direct harm is very difficult to prove."

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The Medical Board of California, which has not yet taken a position on AB 505, requires doctors placed on probation to inform the hospitals with which they're affiliated about their probationary status. The physicians must also notify insurance carriers, but are not required to inform patients.

The Medical Board website provides information about doctors' probationary status, but Consumer Watchdog argues that patients should not be required to search the Internet to determine if their physician is on probation.

Michele Altawil, a legislative aide for Assemblywoman Caballero, said that "at this time, AB 505 does not include a requirement for physicians to disclose whether they have been on probation or not to patients."

In 2016, state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) introduced Senate Bill 1033, which would have required physicians to tell patients if they are on probation. SB 1033 was defeated in a 15-13 vote in the state Senate in June 2016.

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