Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Wednesday conceded that long-standing delays in disciplining errant health professionals were "absolutely unacceptable" and promised broad reforms to better protect patients from dentists, pharmacists, therapists and others accused of misconduct.
"The existing model protects licensees," said Brian Stiger, who was appointed by the governor Tuesday as director of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the state's licensing agencies. "The new model makes the protection of consumers paramount."
Among the proposed changes: adding more investigative and legal staff, appointing an official to audit the boards and seeking legislation that would allow quicker suspension of uncooperative or jailed professionals' licenses. Many of the reforms could be paid for through higher licensing fees charged to health professionals.
The announcement comes a month after The Times and the nonprofit news organization ProPublica reported that it takes more than three years, on average, to investigate and discipline registered nurses accused of wrongdoing, including patient abuse, neglect and drug thefts. One Riverside County nurse was accused of assaulting patients at three hospitals before the board took action.
Several other large states resolve complaints in less than a year.
The governor acted on the same day that the state, in response to a public records request from ProPublica, released data showing that it takes more than two years on average to resolve all types of complaints against health professionals. The delays have persisted throughout the governor's tenure.
"It is clear the current system is broken and the entire enforcement process across all of the boards must be reformed," said Schwarzenegger, who last month replaced the majority of the state Board of Registered Nursing and ordered a review of the state's other health-related boards.
At a specially called meeting Wednesday of the newly revamped nursing body, Stiger proposed redesigning the enforcement system for all boards. He said the state hopes that the entire disciplinary process, from complaint to resolution, can be completed within 12 to 18 months.
Despite the dramatic gestures, Schwarzenegger's own actions may have contributed to problems at both the nursing board and 18 other "healing arts" regulators, which oversee more than 900,000 licensed professionals.
Delays have persisted and in some cases worsened on his watch. A blizzard of budget-cutting under both him and his predecessor Gray Davis left some boards scrambling to stay afloat, according to several state officials.
"Last year all our part-time help was sent home," said the executive officer of one board, referring to layoffs. "Before that there were freezes, which we're still recovering from."
Work furloughs on three Fridays a month, ordered by the administration to cut costs, "are not helping us recover from the problem," said the executive, who was not authorized to speak on the record and would not be named.
Beyond that, Schwarzenegger has failed to fill vacancies on many of the boards overseeing health-related professionals, with two boards -- those overseeing psychologists and physical therapists -- having the minimum number of members required for a quorum. So if one member is absent, the board cannot vote. A spokesperson said Wednesday that the governor is working to appoint the best qualified members.
In stories last month, The Times and ProPublica found that a cumbersome disciplinary process followed by the nursing board and other licensing agencies can stall cases for years.
Complaints must wind their way through four different bureaucracies before being resolved. The biggest delays occur at the consumer affairs department, where the nursing board shares fewer than 40 field investigators with up to 25 boards and bureaus, and at the attorney general's office, where cases are prepared for hearings.
During the investigation, nurses often can practice with clean licenses, their alleged transgressions unknown to employers and patients.
Members of the newly configured nursing board generally welcomed the governor's proposals Wednesday but questioned why such reforms had not been proposed before.
Some also questioned whether they would be able to drastically cut the time it takes to investigate and discipline nurses.
Speakers representing nursing unions said that before the board raises fees to pay for new staff, it should stop furloughing its employees and seek repayment of money the governor borrowed from the nursing board's reserve fund to pay other state bills.
At Wednesday's meeting, board members at times struggled with the rules and constraints they were under -- and questioned whether they should or could be changed.
At one point, new member Jeannine Graves said the nursing board should be able to notify employers when a serious complaint has been made against a nurse.
"I personally have had a nurse that I discharged for substance abuse who went across the street [to another health facility] and got a job that afternoon," said Graves, a practicing nurse in Sacramento.
A lawyer advising the board replied that complaints are not public information.
"If there is a way that we can protect the public during the interim of investigation . . . I think it's OK to dialogue with employers," Graves said.
The lawyer replied, "Actually, it's not OK. Complaints are not public information . . . "
Graves interrupted, "That's why we're all new here."
Also Wednesday, the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee issued a highly critical report detailing other problems that must be addressed.
The report found that investigators did little to prioritize complaints, had no uniform standards for reviewing cases and communicated poorly with individual boards.
In recent years, the report said, investigators appear to have given priority to cases involving professionals working without licenses in the "underground economy," over those involving consumer harm.
Since 2000, the report noted, 80% of the investigative staff have left and about 500 unassigned cases await review.
On Monday, the panel will hold a hearing on the issues.
The harsh critique comes three years after lawmakers stopped their routine reviews of the boards.
"I think there needs to be more oversight on our part," said Sen. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Chino), the committee's chairwoman.
Weber and Ornstein are senior reporters for ProPublica, an independent newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Lin, a Times staff writer, reported from Sacramento.
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The staff of the California Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee made several recommendations Wednesday to improve the functioning of the Board of Registered Nursing, as well other health-related boards. Among them:
* Appoint an outside enforcement monitor to audit the nursing board's enforcement efforts and rehabilitation program for drug-abusing nurses.
* Increase licensing fees paid by nurses to cover the cost of new staff.
* Exempt healthcare licensing boards and enforcement officials from mandatory furloughs enacted by the governor.
* Consider whether to require hospitals to report to the board nurses accused of serious misconduct.
* Create a strike force to quickly pursue nurses who have failed out of drug treatment, been convicted of a crime or violated their probation.
* Give the nursing board more authority to demand medical records and penalize doctors, hospitals and facilities that fail to comply.