ANNAPOLIS- More than 500 complaints accusing Maryland physicians of transgressions ranging from sexual assault to over prescribing medication or violating patient safety are still waiting to be investigated – in some cases, for more than four years – by the state’s Board of Physicians.
While the number of consumer complaints against doctors has risen 9 percent each year for the past four years, the number of cases closed has not kept up, according to a report by the Department of Legislative Services. As a result, Maryland is ranked among the poorest performing states in resolving complaints according to the Federation of State Medical Boards.
“If it’s taking a year to two years to close (a complaint) and to take action, then we’re doing more damage to patients and putting their lives in jeopardy,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, who serves on the committee that oversees regulations affecting the board. “This has been an ongoing concern that doctors are not being disciplined.”
Cases take an average of 992 days from the time they are opened to the time the board takes action, according to the report. That’s 128 days longer on the average than it took the last time case durations were measured in 2001.
Most of the backlog is due to a severe shortage of staff to investigate the cases, analysts said. Out of 17 such positions, seven are vacant, and board officials say it is difficult to entice qualified investigators with the current $34,000 salary allotted by the state.
“If we get adequate staff, we can do this job,” said C. Irving Pinder, executive director of the board. “We’ve been playing catch up for the past five years.”
In 2003, legislators created the board when concerns arose that the old board was not weeding out incompetent physicians. The law added more positions to the board, loosened the standards for taking disciplinary action, and changed requirements for hearing a case.
The reorganization of the board is partly to blame for build-up of unresolved complaints, said Yemisi Koya, who manages investigations for the board.
“Our administrative work has increased by at least 50 percent,” she said, adding that the board has only two secretaries for all of the investigators to share.
The legislative auditors also recommended that the board make all hearings and deliberations open to the public as a way to increase public trust. The board has been criticized for shielding physicians from direct oversight.
Coalition for Patient Rights representative Michael Bennett agreed that open proceedings would be “critical to the public interest.” He also suggested that the board should include more laypeople, even if they don’t have medical backgrounds.
“There’s nothing that improves public trust more than showing that a public advocate is involved,” he said. The committee plans to introduce legislation in January that may give the board more flexibility in hiring staff and conducting investigations.