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Lawmakers stunned doctors not suspended with an investigation pending

By Sascha Cordner

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-989319.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – A Florida Senate panel recently became divided over whether to allow doctors to continue their work, while under investigation. As Sascha Cordner reports, some lawmakers are considering a proposal to give the Department of Health the authority to suspend those physicians suspected of crimes.

During a routine presentation given by the Department of Health about working with law enforcement to crack down on pill mills, members of the Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations were shocked to hear the agency's Board of Medicine could not automatically suspend a doctor at the start of an investigation. Chair of the panel, Republican Senator Mike Fasano of New Port Richey found out while questioning the representative from the Department of Health:

Fasano: "Do we not have the ability to grant the Board of Medicine to grant the ability that when a physician, a Medical Practitioner, is arrested, as Senator Storms, just pointed out; shouldn't it be an automatic suspension?"

Renee Alsobrook: "We currently do not have that statutory authority."

Fasano: "That's something I think we ought to give you that authority."

Normally, if a doctor is under investigation and suspected of a crime, like over-prescribing drugs, they are still allowed to practice their profession, whether they are found guilty or not.

Republican Senator Ronda Storms of Brandon says her problem with this issue is that teachers and law enforcement face suspension while under investigation, but nobody wants to hold doctors accountable. She mentioned an example of a South Florida doctor who prescribed psychotropic drugs to a 7-year-old boy, who later committed suicide. But, Senator Storms says she found it frustrating the doctor was still able to practice even when he was found engaging in illegal activities.

"The guy was pulled over, white dust around his nose, pulled over for DUI, and arrested for cocaine, he's still practicing, little boy hung himself as a result of those drugs, black box warnings, okay there's no violation there, there's no finding, no probable cause determination, dismissed, arrested, cocaine around his nose, DUI, arrested, and what does the Board do? That would be nothing."

But, the possibility of giving the Board of Medicine the authority to suspend doctors as soon as they were under investigation was cause for concern for other lawmakers on the panel. Democratic Senator Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale warned lawmakers to tread lightly on this matter.

"Remember an arrest does not mean guilt. Prime example: I just had a good friend a doctor, arrested a month ago, all charges were dropped, and it turned out the person lied on him, and I would hate for him to have lost his ability to practice his profession based on an allegation and now everyone's apologizing."

Senator Smith says there should be hearings put in place before going through an automatic suspension. But, when Senator Fasano said he still had great concerns and wanted to push forward with granting the authority of a suspension, Republican Senator Greg Evers of Baker backed up Senator Smith's argument:

"Just because you get arrested for something, doesn't mean that you're guilty even by giving them discretion. I still believe that they should have to wait before going through the proper criminal channels because they have spent a long time working on their certificate to be a physician or whatever."

The Chairman of Florida's Board of Medicine Doctor George Thomas later clarified that until a case is brought to the Board itself, they have no jurisdiction to go after these doctors suspected of unethical behavior. He says they are judges, not prosecutors.

But, at the meeting's end, Senator Storms says something still needs to be done, going back to her example of the psychiatrist who prescribed untested drugs to a foster child, who later hung himself in a shower:

"You're going to tell me that a psychiatrist or a surgeon or anybody else can be high as a kite, can be arrested, for cocaine usage, again white cocaine around his nose, and could go to work the next day, treating this population or maybe performing surgery on somebody or whatever there area of practice is and so what we want to be able to do is come in as a safety precaution to the public."

Senator Fasano says he and the other members of his committee still want to look into the issue, taking into account Senator Smith's suggestion of the hearings. However, his committee cannot sponsor legislation because it only deals with budget, not policy issues.