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Schwarzenegger wants sweeping reforms in discipline system for healthcare providers

August 12, 2009 |  1:28 pm


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged Wednesday that there are “significant” backlogs in the discipline of healthcare providers across the state and promised sweeping reforms to correct a system that doesn’t protect consumers from dentists, acupuncturists, therapists and other such professionals accused of misconduct.

The announcement comes a month after The Times and ProPublica published an investigation that found it takes more than three years, on average, to investigate and discipline registered nurses accused of sometimes serious misconduct, including patient abuse, neglect and thefts of drugs from patients.

ProPublica filed a request under the California Public Records Act for a detailed statistical breakdown of how long it takes for all agencies that license health professionals in the state to investigate and discipline caregivers.

The data showed that it takes more than two years on average to discipline virtually every type of health professional.

 “The enforcement and backlog time found at these boards is absolutely unacceptable,” Schwarzenegger said in a press release. “It is clear the current system is broken and the entire enforcement process across all of the boards must be reformed.” 

 “The old model doesn’t work,” said Brian Stiger, who was appointed Tuesday as director of the state Department of Consumer Affairs. “We want to put in something new.” Stiger acknowledged that the existing system “protects licensees.”

“The new model will make the protection of consumers paramount,” he told a meeting of the Board of Registered Nursing, called to discuss reforms to speed up the agency’s disciplinary process.

Stiger said the changes being considered involve hiring more investigative and legal personnel, including civilian investigators and paralegals to supplement sworn peace officers that handle cases now.

He also said his department would likely seek legislative permission to more easily suspend the licenses of professionals who refuse to cooperate during an investigation, and suspend or refuse to renew the licenses of those who are jailed or incarcerated for a felony.

Stiger said the Consumer Affairs Department is exploring the creation of an enforcement and compliance officer to audit each board’s enforcement program.

 “We need to make it clear that merely hiring more investigators is not going to make these backlogs just go away,” he said.

--Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein, with Rong-Gong Lin II in Sacramento.

Weber and Ornstein are senior reporters at ProPublica. Lin is a Times health writer.

Photo: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in July in Sacramento. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press