Politicians need to butt out of medical board investigations

The Dallas Morning News, December 8, 2015

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We know it's not unusual for politicians to call in the occasional favor. But to interfere with a medical board investigation ... that's just wrong. It brings to mind what Perry's currently under criminal indictment for — abuse of power.

Texas politicians have a nasty habit of interfering with medical board investigations. They need to butt out.

The health professions boards exist to protect you and me from harm, thus are some of the most important agencies in state government. Despite parsimonious funding, they do a fine job of governing, licensing and disciplining doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, psychologists and many other practitioner groups.

Regarding discipline, the job of a medical board is particularly onerous because of the enormity of money at stake. A doctor’s career might be worth millions of dollars, so it’s not unusual for a board to face a team of high-powered lawyers representing the doctor. Investigations tend to be lengthy and costly.

The Dallas Morning News recently reported that former Gov. Rick Perry interfered with the Oklahoma medical board’s investigation of Dr. Steven Anagnost, a spinal surgeon practicing in Tulsa.

The Oklahoma board began investigating Anagnost in 2010 for violations involving 23 patients whose surgeries were bungled, leaving them dead, paralyzed or in perpetual pain; charging for surgeries he did not perform; failed surgeries in which he implanted a spinal device he was paid to promote; and failing to report to the board, as state law requires, settlements he paid out of his own pocket in some of the dozens of malpractice lawsuits brought against him.

By 2013, the medical board had spent three years and $600,000 investigating Anagnost and was on the verge of revoking his license when Perry called Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, a fellow Republican. According to a memo written by the board’s executive director, Fallin’s general counsel visited the board saying, “Governor Fallin didn’t want any more calls from Rick Perry about this, that Governor Perry said it was a travesty, and what would it take to make it go away.”

Soon after the meeting, the board agreed to a deal. Anagnost admitted no guilt, paid a fine, agreed to additional training and kept his medical license. Would it surprise you to hear that the surgeon and his benefactor were large donors to Perry?

We know it’s not unusual for politicians to call in the occasional favor. But to interfere with a medical board investigation of a guy who appears to be unscrupulous and severely harming patients? That’s just wrong.

Perry’s not the only Texas politician to pander to wealthy donors and interfere with boards of medicine.

Not having their own police, the health professions boards depend on the eyes and ears of health care professionals to report improper, dangerous practitioners. When a complainant reports a medical professional to his or her licensing board, the board typically notifies the practitioner of the alleged violations — not a copy of the complaint so as to protect the whistleblower from retribution.

In recent sessions, the following politicians have authored and/or sponsored legislation to provide physicians with a copy of complaints: Sen. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington; Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham; Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels; and Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond.

Fortunately their bills failed, in part because committee members heard testimony about the Winkler County nurse who reported a doctor and as a result was fired from her job, criminally prosecuted and endured a trial after which she was acquitted. That only happened because the doctor and county sheriff tricked the Texas Medical Board into giving enough of a description of the complainant that they were able to figure out who she was.

Had their bills passed, only a health care worker with absolutely nothing to lose would report a physician, thus destroying the integrity of a system that has worked reasonably well to root out bad actors. What possible benefit could result from such legislation?

If politicians would remember that they were elected to serve the public interest and let medical board investigations run their course, we’d all be safer.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN, CNS, FAAN, is a lifelong Austin resident and retired editor and neonatal intensive care nurse. She writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.