Some doctors ordered to pay damages have spotless state records

The Associated Press
Monday January 07, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – Not all doctors who are ordered to pay damages to patients end up paying the price on their records, according to a newspaper investigation that found only some cases ever make it into the Medical Board of California’s records. 

One-third of 66 reviewed cases were entered into the agency’s computer database, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. However, all of the cases’ verdicts and arbitration awards were widely reported by the media over the past three years. 

The Medical Board licenses, monitors and disciplines physicians. The agency also is where thousands of patients turn when evaluating and selecting their doctors. 

In some cases, the agency said it was unaware of the decisions partly because it was not informed by court clerks and insurance agencies. 

“Not everything that is reportable is being reported,” said Medical Board spokeswoman Candis Cohen. 

But she said the agency consciously decided not to disclose the verdicts of about half of the cases to the public. It does not disclose medical malpractice settlements, misdemeanor criminal convictions or complaints filed against physicians. A legislative hearing to review that policy is set for Jan. 23. 

“That is unconscionable,” said Julianne D’Angelo Fellmeth, administrative director for the University of San Diego’s Center for Public Interest Law. “That is information about physicians whose incompetence and negligence can kill people.” 

Last year, 130,000 people called the agency’s hot line and its online database was searched 3 million times. Consumers who want more detailed information must request it from the board in writing, which can be a lengthy process. 

Last month, Medical Board Executive Director Ron Joseph told legislators the state’s computer system is too antiquated to add more detailed information to its database. 

The agency also told the Chronicle some of the cases in the newspaper’s investigation were left out of the database because they were later settled. Agency attorney Nancy Vedera said the Medical Board is only required to report final judgments, not verdicts or settlements. 

The law does not prohibit the agency from reporting such outcomes, but Vedera said the board does not want to prompt a lawsuit from the California Medical Association, which represents physicians. 

“The Medical Board has to be prudent in what we report,” Vedera said. “We don’t have a lot of money” to fight lawsuits. 

State law, however, does require court clerks to contact the Medical Board within 10 days of a judgment or settlement of more than $30,000. Insurers also are supposed to notify the agency, but no penalty exists for failure to do so. 

“I don’t feel too good about that,” said Sen. Maurice Johannessen, R-Redding, a member of the Legislative Sunset Review Committee, which is reviewing the Medical Board. “If there are judgments, they should be on the public record.”