Several lawmakers said they've waited years for the board charged with protecting the public from bad doctors to clear a backlog of cases, institute sanctioning guidelines for doctors and develop transparent and consistent practices. The General Assembly writes legislation to reauthorize the 21-member board periodically under a "sunset" provision.
"I feel like the Board of Physicians is being taken to the woodshed," said Dr. Paul Elder, the chairman and an Anne Arundel County physician, to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. "The board works hard and does a good job protecting the public."
This was the first opportunity to hear from the board about a set of criticisms made by legislative auditors ahead of the next sunset, including some that have been leveled as early as 2003. The auditors made 46 recommendations for correcting the problems.
The subcommittee chairwoman, Sen. Joan Carter Conway, said the board had been flouting statutes designed to make the system fair to doctors and to ensure the public is protected. "It's unconscionable," she said.
Sen. Edward R. Reilly, an Anne Arundel Republican, said he understood the challenges of overseeing 43,000 health professionals and the tight budget constraints, but said too much of the board's work was done in secrecy. He also said: "It's our job to say the backlog is unacceptable."
During fiscal 2011, the board handled almost 1,730 complaints, including 739 that continued from the previous year. By the year's end, it closed almost 900, leaving more than 800 pending. It took 164 formal actions.
The panel falls under the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, though the agency has no day-to-day oversight. Officials there, however, are in the process of hiring a new executive director since the current director, C. Irving Pinder Jr., is set to retire.
In testimony before the lawmakers, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, department secretary, recommended that the board bring in Dr. Jay Perman, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, to conduct an outside review. Sharfstein suggested he provide an interim update during the 2012 legislative session and a full report afterward — to which Elder said he was amenable.
This would require the lawmakers to extend the board's sunset for another year so Perman's review could be considered during the 2013 legislative session. The auditors suggested that the lawmakers could consider withholding some of the board's budget as a means of encouraging more swift compliance with laws and recommendations in the meantime. The appropriation in fiscal 2012 was $8.6 million, and there were 68 on staff, 10 fewer than in 2008.
Sharfstein told the committee this was the time to push for change.
"The sunset review process is one of the only opportunities for my department and your committee to assure that the Board of Physicians is headed in the right direction," he said.