Senators cite Public Citizen research in call for oversight of doctor discipline

"dr wolfe"Public Citizen applauds the strong efforts of a bipartisan group of U.S. senators who on Wednesday asked the Office of Inspector General (OIG) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to resume its long-neglected oversight over state medical boards. HHS partly funds medical services for 105 million people through Medicare and Medicaid and thus has an important interest in the appropriate discipline of the hundreds of thousands of U.S. doctors who take care of these patients. Starting in the 1980s, the HHS OIG conducted a number of investigations of state medical boards, but it has not completed a comprehensive evaluation of state medical boards in more than 15 years, the senators’ letter said.

Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) noted in their request the Public Citizen finding in March 2011 that medical boards failed to take action against 220 physicians who were considered an “immediate threat to health or safety of patients” – 75 percent of whom had had their clinical privileges suspended on an “emergency basis.” The senators called on the OIG to conduct an evaluation of state medical boards’ performance. They also reiterated concerns – expressed by Public Citizen in a March 15, 2011, letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius – that a state medical board licensure action against a physician provides greater patient protection from questionable physicians than a hospital clinical privilege action alone.

Too many people in this country, including the large fraction whose medical services are paid by HHS, are injured or killed each year because of the inadequate job most medical boards do by failing to discipline those physicians whose substandard care is a threat to the public.

The absence of HHS-OIG medical board oversight has been accompanied by a worsening in the national rate of serious disciplinary actions against physicians (including revocations, suspensions, probations and license surrenders), which has fallen 20 percent from 2004 to 2010.

The OIG should resume its investigations of state medical board discipline records.

Dr. Sidney Wolfe is director of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group.