Illinois In Top 10 For Serious Medical Disciplinary Actions, New Report Finds

Whether a physician faces disciplinary action by their state medical board depends primarily on their own conduct. Practicing with competence, ethics, and integrity should insulate a doctor from any significant concerns that their license may be put in jeopardy. But it’s not only how you practice, but where you practice, that can determine how likely you are to face the scrutiny of your state’s medical licensing authorities.

Wide Discrepancies In State Medical Boards’ Level of Enforcement Activity

A comprehensive new report by Public Citizen found significant disparities between states in terms of the number of serious disciplinary actions brought against physicians between 2017-2019. The report’s authors concluded that these differences in the frequency of physician discipline had little if anything to do with the quality of a state’s doctors and everything to do with the aggressiveness or laxity of a state’s medical board:

“There is no reason to believe that physicians in any one state are more or less likely to be incompetent or miscreant than the physicians in any other state. Therefore, we believe any observed differences between the boards reflect variations in board performance rather than in physician behavior across different states.”

The report’s authors calculated the rate of serious disciplinary actions per 1,000 physicians in each state with either M.D. only or combined M.D./D.O. medical boards for the years 201, 2018, and 2019. They defined “serious disciplinary actions” as “those that had a clear impact on a physician’s ability to practice.”

The report found that Kentucky had the highest rate of serious physician discipline in the country, with an average of 2.29 serious disciplinary actions per 1,000 physicians per year. The District of Columbia had the lowest rate with only 0.29 serious disciplinary actions per 1,000 physicians per year. That means that the rate of such actions was 7.9 times higher in the state with the most active medical board in the country than in the lowest jurisdiction. 

Illinois ranked 10th on the list, with a rate of 1.51 serious disciplinary actions per 1,000 physicians.

Reasons For Differences In Physician Disciplinary Actions Across States

Public Citizen is an organization that generally favors increased consumer and patient protections and thus advocates for greater regulatory activity and enforcement. Therefore, it is no surprise that they concluded that “low rates of serious disciplinary actions suggest that medical boards are not adequately taking actions to discipline physicians responsible for negligent medical care or whose behavior is unacceptably dangerous to patients.”

The report recommended several policy changes, including:

  • Assuring that revenue from physician license fees funds board activities “instead of sometimes going into the state treasury for general purposes.”
  • Ensuring that boards have adequate staffing
  • Including on medical boards members who have a commitment to safeguarding the public, “not protecting the livelihood of questionable physicians.”
  • Opening the NPDB database to the public so that any person can do a background check on a doctor
  • Increasing state legislative oversight of state medical boards
  • Replacing some medical board members who are physicians with members of the public “with no ties to the medical profession, hospitals, or other providers.”
  • Requiring that medical boards check with the NPDB when they receive complaints about a physician.

This report comes after a year in which physician disciplinary actions plummeted nationwide due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, until and unless the time comes that COVID-19 is no longer an existential public health threat, it is unlikely that any state medical boards will dramatically change the way they do business.

Louis Fine: Chicago Physician License Defense Attorney

The moment you are contacted by IDFPR or learn that you are under investigation is the moment that you should contact me. I will immediately begin communicating with IDFPR prosecutors and work with you to develop the strategy best suited to achieving the goal of an efficient, cost-effective outcome that avoids any adverse action. Together, we will get you back to your patients and your practice.

Please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. I look forward to meeting with you.

Keep Quiet, Lose Your License? Physicians’ Duty to Report a Colleague’s Sexual Misconduct

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is just the latest in a long and infamous line of high-profile individuals to find their careers and reputations threatened by allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct. In most of these cases, from Larry Nasser to Harvey Weinstein to Jeffrey Epstein to countless others, the focus is justifiably on the alleged perpetrators of these abhorrent actions. But in the wake of the #metoo movement, many organizations and professions have come under scrutiny for their tacit complicity in allowing such conduct to go unchecked or unreported.  

Specifically, others who may have been aware of misconduct turned away or failed to take action which could have prevented further abuses and spared other victims. For physicians and other medical professionals who learn of a colleague’s misconduct  – sexual or otherwise – the failure to report such wrongdoing is not just a moral failure. It can be a breach of professional ethics that threatens their professional licenses as well.

Ethical Obligation to Report Misconduct

The duty to report misconduct within the medical profession is often the only way such transgressions can get the attention of professional licensing boards such as the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation (IDFPR) as well as law enforcement. As the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) put it in its sweeping 2020 Report and Recommendations on Physician Sexual Misconduct:

“In a complaint-based medical regulatory system, it is… essential that patients, physicians and everyone involved in healthcare speak up whenever something unusual, unsafe or inappropriate occurs. All members of the healthcare team, as well as institutions, including state medical boards, hospitals and private medical clinics have a legal as well as an ethical duty to report instances of sexual misconduct and other serious patient safety issues and events. This duty extends beyond physician-patient encounters to reporting inappropriate behavior in interactions with other members of the healthcare team, and in the learning environment.”

Similarly, the Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs of the American Medical Association (AMA) admonishes that, “A physician should expose, without fear or favor, incompetent or corrupt, dishonest or unethical conduct on the part of members of the profession.”

However, while the Illinois Medical Practice Act allows for physician reporting of a colleague’s unethical behavior, it neither requires it nor makes a failure to report a basis for disciplinary action.  It provides that licensed physicians “may report to the Disciplinary Board any information the physician… may have that appears to show that a physician is or may be in violation of any of the Act’s provisions.”

But just because reporting sexual misconduct is not mandated under the Act doesn’t mean that failing to report physician sexual misconduct isn’t an ethical violation. “The obligation to report incompetent or unethical conduct that may put patients at risk is recognized in… the ethical standards of the profession,” according to the AMA.

The FMSB was more strident in its 2020 report, concluding that the failure to report sexual misconduct should result in disciplinary action: “Physicians who fail to report known instances of sexual misconduct should be liable for sanction by their state medical board for the breach of their professional duty to report.”

AMA Reporting Guidelines

The AMA has set forth guidelines for how physicians should respond to and report information about a fellow doctor’s patient misconduct. Physicians who become aware of or strongly suspect that conduct threatens patient welfare or otherwise appears to violate ethical or legal standards should:

  • Report the conduct to appropriate clinical authorities in the first instance so that the possible impact on patient welfare can be assessed and remedial action taken.
  • Report directly to the state licensing board when the conduct in question poses an immediate threat to patients’ health and safety or violates state licensing provisions.
  • Report to a higher authority if the conduct continues unchanged despite initial reporting.
  • Protect the privacy of any patients who may be involved to the greatest extent possible, consistent with due process.
  • Report the suspected violation to appropriate authorities.

Regardless of the language contained or not contained in licensing statutes, professionals of all stripes should seize the moment and no longer remain silent when they become aware of harassment or misconduct. While the damage done to victims of sexual misconduct is exponentially greater, the damage to your professional reputation and career could be catastrophic if it is discovered that you were tacitly complicit in allowing such misconduct to continue. 

Louis Fine: Chicago Physician License Defense Attorney

As a former Chief Prosecuting Attorney and administrative law judge for IDFPR, I have seen the serious consequences that an adverse enforcement decision can have on professionals who suddenly find their future in disarray. I understand how and why the Department decides to pursue investigations against physicians, how it handles negotiations, and how to approach formal proceedings in a way that gives my clients the best possible chance of a positive and expeditious outcome.

Please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. Together, we will get you back to your clients and your career.

Overworked and Overwhelmed By Pandemic, Physicians Sacrifice Mental Health Due To Fear Of Licensing Repercussions

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, America’s physicians and health care professionals often face an unnecessary and dangerous choice about what matters more: their career or their mental health.

This unconscionable dilemma arises largely because physicians who currently may be struggling with mental health issues, or who experienced a rough patch in the past, fear that seeking help will threaten their professional license. Despite the harmful disincentivizing that it causes, overly broad inquiries about physicians’ mental health continue to be asked by medical boards across the country. The repercussions are counterproductive and unfair.

Burnout, Stress, and Anxiety Losing Out To Fear 

The pandemic, approaching its second year, is overwhelming hospitals and health care providers, with patients filling hallways and gift shops and doctors forced to make decisions about rationing care. The non-stop flow of patients for months on end, not all of whom will get the care they need and not all of whom will survive, is taking its toll on those charged with taking care of them.

A recent survey found that half of all American physicians report feeling anxious due to COVID-19-related concerns. Nearly 60 percent report experiencing burnout — a significant leap from 40 percent just two years ago. The problem is even more pronounced among emergency physicians, 87 percent of whom report significantly increased stress levels due to the pandemic.

Despite these numbers, only 13 percent of doctors have sought treatment for their COVID-related mental health issues. The other 87 percent are educated and self-aware individuals who would undoubtedly recommend that a patient get care for their problems if they reported experiencing the same symptoms. Yet they struggle in silence, putting themselves – and their patients – at risk. In perhaps the most well-known recent incident, Lorna Breen, MD, medical director of the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, committed suicide after telling loved ones she felt useless to her patients and desperately feared seeking treatment.

Physicians report numerous concerns over seeking mental health care: loss of face, loss of privacy, loss of hospital privileges, or the loss of malpractice coverage. But above all, doctors struggling with their mental health fear losing their ability to practice medicine at all.

Invasive and Irrelevant Questioning By Medical Boards

Nearly 40 percent of doctors said they’d be reluctant to seek mental health care due to concerns about obtaining or renewing their license to practice, according to a 2017 paper published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

That is because they know that, for years, state licensing boards have been asking broad questions about mental health issues, including inquiries about brief treatment received years or decades ago. Reporting such treatment could trigger a long, drawn-out process that could put their license in peril. Better to not seek treatment at all than risk their career, many conclude.

Fortunately, the profession has finally begun to recognize the problem. The Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) released recommendations in 2018 that advised licensing boards to only ask about current mental issues that undermine a physician’s ability to work well. The FSMB concluded that inquiries about topics other than present impairment violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Illinois Limited Its Mental Health Questioning in 2016

To its credit, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) significantly narrowed the scope of its mental health licensing questions for physicians in 2016. Before then, the licensing application asked applicants whether they have ever had a disease or condition that limited their ability to practice. 

Now, however, the question asks only about current conditions and present limitations. Specifically: “Do you now have any disease or condition that presently limits your ability to perform the essential functions of your profession, including any disease or condition generally regarded as chronic by the medical community, i.e., (1) a mental or emotional disease or condition; (2) alcohol or other substance abuse; and (3) physical disease or condition. If yes, attach a detailed statement, including an explanation of whether or not you are currently under treatment.”

Nobody, including doctors, should have to choose between their mental health and their livelihood. While no one wants an impaired physician to be treating patients, neither should we want a talented physician sidelined because they had the courage to seek treatment.

Louis R. Fine: Chicago Physician License Defense Attorney

Throughout my career, I have been protecting the livelihoods and professional futures of physicians and other health care providers before the IDFPR, combining insight and experience with zealous and strategic advocacy.

If you have physician licensing questions or concerns, please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. I look forward to meeting with you.

Put Up Or Shut Up: The Burden of Proof In Illinois Physician Licensing Hearings

Simply saying something doesn’t make it so. Just because you believe a proposition doesn’t make it true. And wanting a certain result doesn’t entitle a person to get it. If you are going to advocate for a position or seek an outcome based on claims you make, you better have the receipts to back it up. That is a fundamental proposition of our judicial system. A party seeking relief, whether a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit, a prosecutor in a criminal case, or a defeated president in a flurry of desperate and delusional litigation, must meet the applicable burden of proof to prevail. So too must the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) when pursuing disciplinary action against a physician, as does a doctor seeking to have their license reinstated.

But, as we have seen over the past month, anyone can file a lawsuit for anything based on nothing whatsoever. As long as you pay the court filing fee, you could sue me today for implanting listening devices in your molars. Of course, as we have also seen, cases based on implausible allegations unsupported by any facts or evidence usually meet a swift demise. And those who bring such frivolous claims without a reasonable basis for doing so can and should face consequences for their actions.

Allegations v. Burden Of Proof

The burden of proof, however, does not refer to what a party must show when they initiate a proceeding, though there does need to be a good faith basis in fact and law for pursuing a case in the first place. Rather, it is what a party must ultimately prove to a judge, jury, or hearing officer to get the relief or result they seek.

When the IDFPR launches disciplinary proceedings in a physician licensing matter, they do so after conducting an investigation and gathering facts to support their filing of a formal complaint. Similarly, it gathers facts and evidence when making a decision as to granting or restoring a license. While the facts that the Department may rely upon may be weak, disputed, or of questionable veracity, IDFPR rarely pursues cases or makes license decisions without at least some evidence that could plausibly justify their efforts.

Allegations in a complaint, as noted, are just that – allegations. And the decision to deny a license renewal or issue a reinstatement can be challenged by an applicant or licensee. This is where the parties need to put up or shut up

Disciplinary Action and Refusals To Renew: Burden of Proof Is On The IDFPR

Section 1110.190 of the Illinois Administrative Code provides that the burden of proof rests with the Department in all cases it institutes by filing a Complaint or Notice of Intent to Refuse to Renew a physician’s license.  An Administrative Law Judge may make a recommendation for discipline only when the IDFPR establishes by clear and convincing evidence that the allegations of the Complaint or Notice are true.

While a somewhat nebulous concept, as all burdens of proof are, “clear and convincing” evidence generally means that degree of proof which, considering all the evidence in the case, produces the “firm and abiding belief that it is highly probable” that the allegations in the IDFPR’s formal complaint are true. This standard falls between the “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof that prosecutors have in criminal cases and the “preponderance of evidence” standard applied in most civil lawsuits.

License Denials And Requests For Reinstatement

“Clear and convincing” evidence is also the standard the Department must meet when filing a Notice of Intent to Deny the issuance of a physician’s license. Specifically, if the Notice of Intent to Deny alleges that the applicant has violated a disciplinary provision of the Medical Practice Act, IDFPR has the burden of proof to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the alleged violation occurred. 

If the Department meets this standard in a physician licensing case, the burden of proof then switches to the physician, who must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the license should be granted. As noted, preponderance of the evidence is a more lenient standard, meaning that it is more likely than not that the facts supporting the physician’s reasons why they should be issued their license are true.

The preponderance of the evidence standard also applies when a physician files a Petition for Hearing seeking restoration of their license. The burden of proof is on the physician rather than IDFPR in license restoration hearings.

Even when the Department bears the burden of proof, it has many unfair advantages over licensees in terms of gathering and producing evidence. As I have discussed in a previous post, a licensee’s ability to pursue the discovery and obtain the evidence necessary to challenge IDFPR’s allegations is extremely limited. In fact, the extent of allowable discovery is determined by the very people prosecuting the case. The inherent unfairness of IDFPR’s discovery rules is just one of many reasons why physicians need experienced professional license defense counsel at their side when their careers and practices are at stake.

Louis Fine: Chicago Physician Licensing Attorney

The moment you are contacted by IDFPR or learn that you are under investigation is the moment that you should contact me. I will immediately begin communicating with IDFPR prosecutors and work with you to develop the strategy best suited to achieving the goal of an efficient, cost-effective outcome that avoids any adverse action. Together, we will get you back to your patients and your practice.

Please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. I look forward to meeting with you.

Proposed Legislation Would Remove Telemedicine Licensing Barriers

Well-before the world had heard of COVID-19, the use of telemedicine was increasingly seen as a way to expand patient access to care and address a growing shortage of physicians, particularly in rural and underserved areas. As noted by the authors of an article in the American Journal of Managed Care, “The impact of restricting telemedicine falls hardest on poor patients, the uninsured, and those who rely on state Medicaid programs, many of whom lack access to reliable transportation and cannot travel across state lines to see specialists.”

But the pandemic and the lockdowns that followed in its wake dramatically changed the telehealth landscape for doctors, patients, and insurers. Now, legislation recently introduced in Congress seeks to address licensing barriers that have stood in the way of leveraging this technology to improve patient care.

The number of virtual visits exploded as such appointments became seen more as a matter of health and safety rather than convenience. While it is estimated that only two percent of all patient appointments pre-pandemic were via telemedicine, a whopping 61 percent of visits have been conducted virtually since then. Even when, hopefully in the near future, COVID-19 recedes into memory, experts anticipate that telemedicine will remain an increasingly utilized option.

Scores of Separate Licenses Currently Needed For Telemedicine Across State Lines

But the inability of physicians to provide remote care to patients in other states where they are not licensed is holding back telemedicine’s potential and unnecessarily denying patients access to quality healthcare. This is particularly problematic in areas where the healthcare system is currently overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases.

The problem is that, as of November 2019, 49 state medical boards, plus the medical boards of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, require that physicians engaging in telemedicine have a license in the state in which the patient is located.

Equal Access To Care Act

However, a bill introduced in Congress in July – The Equal Access To Care Act (EACA) – seeks to remove this roadblock. If enacted, the act would allow licensed practitioners to provide services via telehealth in any state from any location for up to 180 days after the end of the current public health emergency period. On July 23, the federal government extended that period for another 90 days.

Specifically, the EACA provides that a physician, practitioner, or other healthcare provider who is licensed to provide health care services in their primary state, and who provides such health care services in interstate commerce through electronic information or telecommunication technologies to a patient in another state, does not need to obtain a comparable license from the state where the patient is located in order to provide such services.

It is expected that EACA will receive rare bipartisan support in both chambers. If it does pass, it raises the question of what happens to telehealth licensing requirements after the pandemic emergency ends. Given that almost all stakeholders have come around on the use of and payment for virtual visits, one would think that a permanent solution is more likely than not.

Expanded Medicare Coverage For Telemedicine Also On The Table

In addition to removing licensing burdens, Congress is also considering legislation to expand Medicare coverage for telehealth services. The Telehealth Modernization Act was introduced on July 30th. If it becomes law, the act would remove geographic and originating site restrictions from Medicare coverage of telehealth services, ensure that telehealth services at federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and rural health clinics (RHCs) are covered by Medicare, and give the Health and Human Services Secretary the authority to permanently expand the types of telehealth services covered by Medicare, among other changes.

Louis R. Fine: Chicago Physician License Defense Attorney

Throughout my career, I have been protecting the livelihoods and professional futures of physicians and other health care providers before the IDFPR, combining insight and experience with zealous and strategic advocacy.

The moment you are contacted by IDFPR or learn that you are under investigation is the moment that you should contact me. I will immediately begin communicating with IDFPR prosecutors and work with you to develop the strategy best suited to achieving the goal of an efficient, cost-effective outcome that avoids any adverse action. Together, we will protect your Illinois physician’s license and get you back to your patients and your career.

Please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. I look forward to meeting with you.

What NOT To Do When Reopening Your Medical Practice in Illinois

We are now in Phase 3 of Gov. JB Pritzker’s five-phase Restore Illinois plan. For medical practices throughout the state, this means that many individuals who have delayed or deferred elective procedures, screenings, and other non-COVID-19 visits are now scheduling these visits. For physicians and staff at medical offices, returning to the routine care and treatment of patients will be anything but routine.

Healthcare providers across the country have been modifying their policies, practices, and procedures to comply with state and local requirements for the protection of both patients and staff. In Illinois, that means following safety guidance from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) has issued its “Framework for Healthcare Systems Providing Non-COVID-19 Clinical Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic” to help guide clinicians in their decision-making.

But on a more granular level, the modifications that practices must make to their clinical care and general operation can be quite extensive and require planning, thoughtfulness, and diligence in both formulation and execution. To help guide physicians in this regard. The American Medical Association (AMA) has compiled a reopening guide with actionable information, proposed best practices a checklist, and other resources to ensure that medical practices are ready to reopen.

Among the resources provided by the AMA is a list of mistakes that practices should avoid when reopening. Not only can such missteps put the health and safety of patients and staff at risk, but they can also draw the scrutiny of authorities who will not hesitate to intervene if a practice is not following required precautions.

Some “don’t’s” physicians should avoid when reopening, per the AMA, include:

  • Don’t jump the gun. Stay in line with the latest requirements and limitations issued by the governor, IDPH, and local authorities. These change frequently with events, so it is imperative that you keep continuously abreast of what is and isn’t permitted in terms of patient care and office safety.
  • Don’t assume your supply chain will return to normal. Assess your practice’s current inventory and future needs for personal protective equipment and order enough to have on hand when reopening.
  • Don’t allow non-patient visitors. Clearly post on your website and practice door your revised visitor policy. Reroute vendors, salespeople, educators, and service providers (other than caregivers) to phone or videoconference communication.
  • Don’t presume that your obligations as an employer are the same. In addition to new safety precautions and procedures for you and your staff, the pandemic has changed the rights of employees and the obligations of employers in several respects. From paid sick leave and family medical leave to ADA issues and more, practices should consult with experienced counsel to ensure that they avoid any exposure related to their employment practices.

Louis Fine: Chicago Professional License Defense Attorney

This is an unprecedented and challenging time for everyone, including and perhaps especially, for medical professionals. During this crisis, I remain committed to being a resource, counselor, and advocate for all Illinois licensees as they navigate the rapidly changing legal, regulatory, and practical landscape.

If you have questions or concerns about your professional license or COVID-19, please contact me immediately. Call (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. I look forward to meeting with you.

Cognitive Decline Among Older Physicians Leading to Increased Screening

For every accomplished physician who dreams of retiring early, there is one who can’t imagine giving up the work that brings them so much personal and professional satisfaction and financial security. Every year, 20,000 American doctors turn 65, but only half of them retire by then. Thousands of physicians continue to practice well past their 70th, even 80th, birthdays. It is estimated that one in every eight practicing doctors in the U.S. is over 65, overseeing 50-70 million office visits and 11 million to 20 million hospitalizations each year.

One In Eight Doctors Over 70 Found to Have Significant Cognitive Deficits

With so many patients receiving care from physicians 65 and up, many hospitals and healthcare systems are also increasing their scrutiny of the cognitive abilities and faculties of these senior clinicians. Major institutions such as Scripps Health Care, Intermountain Healthcare, Stanford Hospitals and Clinics, and Penn Medicine have implemented mandatory cognitive screens for older practitioners.

At Yale New Haven Hospital, for example, all applicants 70 or older who seek reappointment to the medical staff are required to have an objective evaluation of cognitive function as part of the two-year reappointment process. What a recent round of that testing revealed was that one in eight doctors who participated in the screening had cognitive deficits that were likely to impair their ability to practice medicine independently.

Testing or No Testing, Cognitive Issues Raise Professional Licensing Concerns

The wisdom and efficacy of such testing programs is subject to debate, with many arguing that age-based screening is empirically unjustified or inherently discriminatory. Whether subject to required testing or not, however, all older physicians who continue to treat patients later in life will at some point face difficult questions about their abilities and the prudence of continuing to practice.

Confronting issues of cognitive decline, if not impairment, is no easy task, personally and professionally. But recognizing any such concerns is also an ethical imperative. Continuing to practice while suffering from cognitive impairment significant enough to raise concerns about patient safety can subject a physician of any age to disciplinary action and the loss of their license.

The Illinois Medical Practice Act (the “Act”), for example, makes it a basis for suspension or revocation of a license for a physician to practice if they have a:
• Mental illness or disability which results in the inability to practice under this Act with reasonable judgment, skill or safety.
• Physical illness, including, but not limited to, deterioration through the aging process… which results in a physician’s inability to practice under this Act with reasonable judgment, skill, and safety.

The Act also imposes reporting requirements on certain health care executives regarding “impaired” physicians, defined as those who lack the ability “to practice medicine with reasonable skill and safety due to physical or mental disabilities as evidenced by a written determination or written consent based on clinical evidence including deterioration through the aging process or loss of motor skill… of sufficient degree to diminish a person’s ability to deliver competent patient care.”

Doctors, for all their talents, are as vulnerable as anyone else to the inevitable effects of time and aging. While debate may continue as to the best way to identify and remediate instances of age-related cognitive or physical impairment, doctors who practice well into their golden years need to combine their clinical judgment with self-awareness when evaluating the wisdom of continuing to treat patients. Failing to do so puts both patients and professional licenses at risk.

Louis R. Fine: Chicago Physician License Defense Attorney

Throughout my career, I have been protecting the livelihoods and professional futures of physicians and other health care providers before the IDFPR, combining insight and experience with zealous and strategic advocacy.

The moment you are contacted by IDFPR or learn that you are under investigation is the moment that you should contact me. I will immediately begin communicating with IDFPR prosecutors and work with you to develop the strategy best suited to achieving the goal of an efficient, cost-effective outcome that avoids any adverse action. Together, we will protect your Illinois physician’s license and get you back to your patients and your career.

Please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. I look forward to meeting with you.

Telemedicine and Physician Licensing: How the 19th Century is Holding Back the 21st

teleAdvancements in technology almost always outpace efforts by legislators and regulators to address the new realities, issues, and concerns that arise from such innovations. Laws that made sense even a short ten years ago can quickly become anachronistic, if not counterproductive.

Such is the dilemma facing physicians and healthcare providers who see telemedicine as a key way to address a growing physician shortage, especially in rural and other underserved areas. That shortage is expected to grow to 120,000 doctors by 2030, according to a 2018 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges.

51 Different Licenses

The problem is that while the internet knows no borders, medical licenses do. Increasingly, the inability of physicians to provide remote care to patients in other states where they are not licensed is holding back telemedicine’s potential and unnecessarily denying patients access to quality healthcare.

Physicians must be licensed in each state where their current and future patients are located, so a doctor wanting to counsel patients through telemedicine would need to obtain and stay compliant with licensing requirements in up to 51 jurisdictions governed by 51 different medical boards imposing 51 different standards, conditions, and rules.

The current state-based medical licensing regime traces its roots back to the 19th Century, and the system is clearly showing its age. While effective and robust licensing is still essential in ensuring quality of care, the lack of license reciprocity and portability between states is now more of a hindrance to providing such care than a help.

That is why already active efforts to change medical licensing to facilitate telemedicine continue to gain steam. The most successful of these efforts to date has been the Federation of State Medical Licensing Board’s (FSMB) work establishing the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact. Physicians in good standing can freely practice in any of the states participating in the compact so long as they possess a “full and unrestricted” license in their state of principal license (SPL). To date, only 24 states, including Illinois, have joined the compact.

A Uniform, Nationwide System

This still leaves too many doctors and too many patients locked out of telemedicine. As noted by the authors of a recent article in the American Journal of Managed Care, “The impact of restricting telemedicine falls hardest on poor patients, the uninsured, and those who rely on state Medicaid programs, many of whom lack access to reliable transportation and cannot travel across state lines to see specialists.”

That is why the FSMB and other telemedicine advocates have advanced several proposals to enhance license portability and reduce regulatory barriers to telemedicine. They all are based around a mutual recognition scheme whereby states honor each other’s medical licenses based on models that have been successfully used in Europe and Australia and by the Veterans Health Administration, US military, and US Public Health Service.

Adoption of a nationwide licensing scheme would be facilitated by establishing consistent standards for using and regulating telemedicine services, the sharing of malpractice, medical error, and license cancellation or suspension information between states, and other federal and state-level reforms.

Any efforts that would streamline the physician licensing process while at the same time increasing access to healthcare for those who need it most should be encouraged.

Louis R. Fine: Chicago Physician License Defense Attorney

Throughout my career, I have been protecting the livelihoods and professional futures of physicians and other health care providers before the IDFPR, combining insight and experience with zealous and strategic advocacy.

The moment you are contacted by IDFPR or learn that you are under investigation is the moment that you should contact me. I will immediately begin communicating with IDFPR prosecutors and work with you to develop the strategy best suited to achieving the goal of an efficient, cost-effective outcome that avoids any adverse action. Together, we will protect your Illinois physician’s license and get you back to your patients and your career.

Please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. I look forward to meeting with you.

Minor Licensing Violations Could Cost Physicians Medicare Billing Privileges Under Proposed Rule

For phmedicareysicians and other eligible health care professionals, Medicare enrollment and billing privileges are invaluable and lucrative assets that can form a substantial portion of their revenues, allow them to treat more patients, and expand their career opportunities. Losing those privileges can be a catastrophic blow to a practice.

But a new rule proposed by the Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services (CMS) would dramatically expand CMS’ authority to deny or revoke Medicare privileges, allowing it to substitute its judgment for that of state licensing boards and impose such catastrophic sanctions even for infractions a state board deems relatively minor.

On August 14, 2019, CMS issued what it called a “major proposed rule” addressing a wide range of changes to the Medicaid physician fee schedule and other aspects of participation in the program. If it becomes final, all 808 pages of the proposed rule would represent the most substantial modification to program enrollment and eligibility since the establishment of the regulations in 2006.

CMS Can Impose Harsher Sanctions Than State Boards

In the proposed rule, CMS notes that, at the moment, it cannot make Medicare eligibility and renewal decisions based solely on state board disciplinary actions:

“We currently lack the legal basis to take administrative action against a physician or other eligible professional for a matter related to patient harm based solely on… an administrative action (excluding a state medical license suspension or revocation) imposed by a state oversight board,” such as the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR).

The new rule would grant CMS such authority and “would permit us to revoke or deny, as applicable, a physician’s or other eligible professional’s… enrollment if he or she has been subject to prior action from a state oversight board… with underlying facts reflecting improper physician or other eligible professional conduct that led to patient harm.”

84 Fed. Reg. at 40723.

As a practical matter, the rule gives CMS the power to review a state board’s conclusions and sanctions and then make its own determination as to whether the physician’s or other professional’s conduct warrants exclusion from Medicare.

This can lead to a situation in which IDFPR deems an infraction to be relatively minor and perhaps deserving of a “slap on the wrist” while CMS could decide to impose a “death sentence” in terms of Medicare eligibility, a conflict CMS readily acknowledges:

“We recognize that situations could arise where a state oversight board has chosen to impose a relatively minor sanction on a physician or other eligible professional for conduct that we deem more serious. We note, however, that we, rather than state boards, is ultimately responsible for the administration of the Medicare program and the protection of its beneficiaries. State oversight of licensed physicians or practitioners is, in short, a function entirely different from federal oversight of Medicare. We accordingly believe that we should have the discretion to review such cases to determine whether, in the agency’s view, the physician’s or other eligible professional’s conduct warrants revocation or denial.”

Id.

Making matters worse for sanctioned physicians, a decision by CMS to revoke Medicare privileges results in an automatic cross-termination of participation in Medicaid and other federal payer programs.

The public comment period for the proposed rule closes on September 27, 2019. If the rule is enacted, it becomes that much more critical for physicians facing IDFPR investigations or disciplinary proceedings – even for a “minor” infraction – to retain experienced professional license defense counsel.

Louis R. Fine: Chicago Physician License Defense Attorney

Throughout my career, I have been protecting the livelihoods and professional futures of physicians and other health care providers before the IDFPR, combining insight and experience with zealous and strategic advocacy.

The moment you are contacted by IDFPR or learn that you are under investigation is the moment that you should contact me. I will immediately begin communicating with IDFPR prosecutors and work with you to develop the strategy best suited to achieving the goal of an efficient, cost-effective outcome that avoids any adverse action. Together, we will protect your Illinois physician’s license and get you back to your patients and your career.

Please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. I look forward to meeting with you.

HIPAA and IDFPR: Violations of Patient Privacy Can Threaten Your Professional License

hipaaThe Jussie Smollett saga earlier this year made headlines here in Chicago and throughout the country. It was a juicy tale of a supposed hate crime against an actor, that turned out to be a hoax, that led to criminal charges against Smollett, that were later dropped by State’s Attorney Kimberly Foxx, who then found herself under scrutiny for that decision. But Smollett and Foxx weren’t the only ones in this tale whose conduct raised eyebrows or put them in legal or ethical jeopardy.

Fifty employees, including several nurses, at Northwestern Memorial Hospital lost their jobs and faced disciplinary action because they violated the patient privacy provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This included one nurse who did nothing more than search for Smollett’s name in the hospital’s system.

Breaching HIPAA Obligations Is Easy. Dealing With the Fallout Is Not.

If you are a physician or registered nurse, or if you work in healthcare in any capacity, you are no doubt generally aware of HIPAA and the duties it creates to ensure the confidentiality of protected health information (PHI). That fired nurse no doubt knew about HIPAA’s privacy and security rules as well. But her case demonstrates how quickly and inadvertently you can breach your professional obligations as to patient privacy and put your career – and professional license – in peril.

After HIPAA became law in 1996, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a set of national standards governing the use, maintenance, and disclosure of patients’ protected health information. Commonly known as the Privacy Rule, the Standards for Privacy of Individually Identifiable Health Information limit how and to whom PHI can be disclosed.

Additionally, medical professionals and organizations must comply with detailed rules involving the physical and electronic security of PHI (the Security Rule, or Security Standards for the Protection of Electronic Protected Health Information) as well as the Breach Notification Rule which addresses what doctors and healthcare providers need to do in the event of a data breach.

As complex as HIPAA rules can be, violating them couldn’t be easier. It doesn’t require malicious intent (though that makes matters worse) or the knowledge that an act or omission violates HIPAA. In fact, most HIPAA infractions are inadvertent and more a factor of “loose lips sink ships” than anything else. But that doesn’t insulate a doctor or nurse from civil penalties or professional license consequences.

Common HIPAA Privacy Rule Violations

The following are common examples of how medical professionals can and do unknowingly violate HIPAA’s Privacy Rule:

  • Leaving patient files and information in plain view, such as at a nurse’s station or reception desk, so that anyone in proximity may be able to see that information.
  • Social media posts, pictures, or videos that may directly or indirectly reveal information about a patient or their condition, even in “closed” groups. A 2015 ProPublica review uncovered 22 cases of HIPAA-violating photo and video sharing in just the previous three years, with 35 instances of inappropriate image and video sharing found in total. There have been plenty more widely-publicized incidents since then.
  • Sending PHI over messaging apps without patient authorization.
  • Accessing the PHI of patients you are not required to treat
  • Gossiping about specific patients and disclosing their health information to family, friends & colleagues
  • Improper disposal of PHI, such as discarding it in regular trash.

Possible Consequences of a HIPAA Privacy Violation

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at DHS is responsible for enforcing HIPAA’s privacy requirements and can impose civil fines and criminal penalties, including possible jail time, for violations. The penalties and/or fines administered by OCR are based on the severity of each HIPAA violation and the knowledge and intent involved. Only willful violations will raise the specter of criminal prosecution, but civil penalties can rise to the level of tens of thousands of dollars.

Additionally, under Illinois’ Medical Patient Rights Act, any physician or healthcare provider who discloses a patient’s PHI without their express consent or as otherwise provided by law is guilty of a petty offense and will be fined $1,000.

If a physician or nurse violates HIPAA in a willful or egregious way, or is negligent in their handling of patient information, the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) may take an interest and see such conduct as the basis for disciplinary action.

For example, the Illinois Medical Practice Act provides that the Department may revoke, suspend, place on probation, reprimand, refuse to issue or renew, or take any other disciplinary or non-disciplinary action against a physician for “willfully or negligently violating the confidentiality between physician and patient except as required by law.”

To avoid all of these potential consequences, physicians and nurses must remain vigilant and ever mindful of their patients’ privacy and their obligations under HIPAA.

Louis Fine: Chicago Professional License Defense Attorney

If you have questions or concerns about your duties under HIPAA or find yourself facing an IDFPR investigation or complaint about patient privacy, please contact me immediately. As a former Chief Prosecuting Attorney and administrative law judge for IDFPR, I have seen the serious consequences that an adverse enforcement decision can have on professionals who suddenly find their future in disarray. I can work with you to develop the strategy best suited to achieving the goal of an efficient, cost-effective outcome that avoids any adverse action. Together, we will get you back to your clients and your career.

Please give me a call at (312) 236-2433 or fill out my online form to arrange for your free initial consultation. I look forward to meeting with you.

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