State urged to tighten doctor discipline

By Cara Matthews

ALBANY — The state needs to strengthen the disciplinary system for doctors, consumer groups said Tuesday as they released a report on physician oversight.

The number of physicians in the state and complaints against them have increased in recent years, but disciplinary actions have gone down, said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group. The ranks of doctors practicing increased 28 percent from 1995 to 2007 and complaints went up 46 percent. But the number of disciplinary actions last year was the lowest since 1996.

The state Department of Health “really took its foot off the accelerator in terms of actions against doctors,� Horner said.

Other findings in the report were:

* Nearly 60 percent of actions by the Health Department’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct were based on sanctions made by other states, the federal government or the courts. Most continue to practice.

* New York is one of only a few states that does not publicly disclose the names of doctors who have been formally charged with misconduct by the state. Final disciplinary actions are public information, but ongoing probes and dismissed or closed complaints are not.

* New York leads the nation in the number of doctors who practice under supervision by the state’s physician discipline boards. The study said it was unclear whether there were more cases in New York because of more aggressive oversight.

The state has 81,641 licensed physicians, and 65,644 of them are practicing. There were 1,400 who practiced while under supervision in 2007, compared with 672 in California, 8 in Wyoming, 65 in Connecticut and 611 in New Jersey, the report said.

NYPIRG and other organizations said they support reforming the disciplinary system against physicians, something that was proposed by Gov. David Paterson and has support in the GOP-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled Assembly. NYPIRG, the Center for Medical Consumers, the Center for Justice & Democracy, the Consumers Union and the New York Statewide Senior Action Council released the report.

The legislation would:

* Require the Health Department’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct to use medical-malpractice information to initiate investigations. (Malpractice cases are heard in civil court and do not involve the Office of Professional Medical Conduct.)

* Authorize the state health commissioner to disclose information to the public as needed about public-health threats discovered during a probe.

* Mandate that physicians update their online profiles with the state as a condition of renewing their licenses. The profiles — listed at — have information like education, hospital credentials, disciplinary actions and limited details about malpractice judgments and settlements.

— Allow the Office of Professional Medical Conduct to get a doctor’s medical records more easily if there is cause to believe a physician may be impaired by alcohol, drugs or disability.

The state Health Department needs statutory authority to release information earlier in the disciplinary process, and the legislation would provide that, said Claudia Hutton, an agency spokeswoman.

In a case on Long Island last summer, it took several months before there was an agreement on what records the Health Department could access, Hutton said. The agency didn’t get all everything it needed at first, she said.

In that situation, Long Island Dr. Harvey Finkelstein was lax in infection control. He contaminated some medicine vials and ended up passing hepatitis C to a patient, Hutton said. The physician is practicing under state supervision.

This is not the first time attempts have been made to strengthen the Office of Professional Medical Conduct. In 1996, the Legislature passed and the governor signed a law that increased the physician licensing fees from $300 to $600 every two years. The extra money was for hiring more investigators and prosecutors, according to the report. The law made it easier to sanction physicians guilty of misconduct.

The state Medical Society’s legislative agenda for this session said the group would not support raising the physician registration fees any further. Any additional money should come from the state’s general fund, it said.

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