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Times’ sex abuse investigation triggers calls for reform of state Medical Board

Kristina Lawson, president of the California Medical Board, seen above in 2016
Kristina Lawson, president of the California Medical Board, seen above in 2016, refused to explain why the board granted specific reinstatements to doctors who’d lost their licenses for sexual misconduct, citing privacy laws.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press
)

Legislators, regulators and one of California’s most powerful healthcare lobbies are calling for drastic reforms in response to revelations that the state Medical Board gave licenses back to doctors who sexually abused patients.

The push for change at the Medical Board of California, which oversees the discipline of doctors in the state, followed a Los Angeles Times investigation that found since 2013 the panel reinstated 10 physicians who had lost their licenses for sexual misconduct. They included two doctors who abused teenaged girls and one who beat two female patients when they reported him for sexually exploiting them.

One of the doctors, a Bakersfield internist, reported his primary accuser — an undocumented immigrant from Mexico — to immigration officials in a bid to prevent her from testifying against him, according to the board’s records.

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“That’s evil, pure evil,” said state Sen. Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger), whose district includes Bakersfield. She noted that her own parents immigrated from Mexico. “The board is severely broken; it’s absolutely insane that you have someone who has committed these horrible acts on individuals and there’s no justice,” Hurtado said.

“We should abolish the board and start over,” she said. “I think it’s reasonable and people would be so happy with it.”

The California Medical Board has reinstated a number of doctors who sexually abused patients, a Times investigation found.

Robert E. Wailes, president of the powerful California Medical Assn., which patient advocates have long accused of obstructing reform and shielding bad doctors from disciplinary action, called the cases detailed in The Times’ report “abhorrent and intolerable.”

The physicians’ behavior should disqualify them for life, Wailes said.

The Times investigation detailed the cases of several doctors who were convicted of crimes stemming from their sexual misconduct.

“Each instance is a flagrant abandonment of what it means to be a doctor and constitutes heinous criminal behavior that should result in the permanent revocation of a license to practice medicine,” Wailes said. “Any physician who violates a patient’s trust and the sanctity of the physician-patient relationship in this way has no place in the medical profession.”

In sharp contrast to its earlier opposition to some disciplinary measures, Wailes pledged that the association, which lobbies for physicians, “will champion the necessary reforms to ensure California patients are protected from criminal sexual misconduct” by doctors.

The Medical Board of California was established to protect patients by licensing doctors and investigating complaints. The board has a long history of going easy on troubled doctors, a Times investigation has found.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who appointed half of the board’s current members and is ultimately responsible for their performance, declined to be interviewed for this story.

Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for the governor, wrote via email: “Any claims of sexual assault, especially against minors, should be taken seriously.” She called on lawmakers to “hold people accountable” but did not specify how they should do that.

She also said the governor expects board members to “use their full authority” to hold doctors accountable but did not say whether he thinks they have done so in the cases cited by The Times.

Meanwhile, the doctors who admitted to having had sexual misconduct with teenagers — Esmail Nadjmabadi in Bakersfield and Hari M. Reddy of Victorville — have current licenses and have resumed practicing. Both have declined to answer specific questions about their cases, with Nadjamabadi saying, “That’s ancient history; it’s over. I’ve moved on with my life.”

Also back practicing is Zachary Cosgrove, a Bakersfield family practitioner who had sex with three female patients, then turned violent when they reported him to authorities, according to Medical Board records. He kicked and punched one, threw furniture at another and told the third, “You’d better just kill yourself. ... That’s going to hurt less than what I’m going to do to you,” according to the records.

Like the others, Cosgrove went to therapy and admitted to the allegations against him before successfully petitioning for reinstatement of his license. Cosgrove could not be reached for comment for this story. He previously told The Times he went through a lot of rehabilitation and “absolutely” deserved to get his license back.

Any sexual contact with patients violates a physician’s code of ethics as laid out by the American Medical Assn. and violates California law.

But a Times review of all petitions for reinstatement since 2013 found that doctors whose licenses were revoked or surrendered due to sexual misconduct succeeded in getting them back more than half of the time.

That’s a significantly higher rate than for doctors who lost their licenses for all other reasons, including fraud, drug abuse and gross negligence, according to the review.

Serious malpractice leading to the loss of limbs, paralysis and the deaths of patients wasn’t enough for the California Medical Board to stop these bad doctors from continuing to practice medicine.

In a recent interview, Board President Kristina Lawson said she was “unable to verify” The Times’ findings and refused to discuss the details of individual cases or explain why the board granted specific reinstatements, citing privacy laws.

She conceded that the board has “room for improvement.” She said it is bound by state regulations that prevent it from deeming some offenses — such as sexual misconduct with a minor — as reasons for permanent disqualification.

Lawson said she has directed the staff to look into notifying victims before reinstating doctors’ licenses and providing a venue for victims to be heard during the reinstatement process.

Former state Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) said The Times’ findings were gut-wrenching – and indicative of deep flaws in the Medical Board’s oversight of doctors. Hill spent three years trying to pass legislation requiring doctors on probation for certain violations, including sexual misconduct, to notify patients of their status.

Hill, whose Patient’s Right to Know Act became law in 2019, has long contended the Medical Board protects doctors at the expense of patient safety, in large part because of pressure from the physicians’ lobby.

“It’s just incredible. It’s just shocking,” Hill said of The Times’ report. “As I see it, the medical board clearly has failed the people of California in so many ways. They should be replaced by people who represent the people of California, not the California Medical Assn. and the bad doctors of California.”

Hill said he was especially troubled by The Times’ finding that the Medical Board reinstates a larger percentage of doctors whose licenses are revoked for sexual misconduct than for other violations.

“What I see is that a value has been established by the medical board that it’s OK, or less significant, to sexually abuse someone and scar them for life than perhaps to scar them by a knife in a faulty surgery,” he said. “It’s outrageous.”

Hill also said that the board’s three-year waiting period for doctors to apply for reinstatement after their licenses have been revoked is not long enough for those who have sexually abused patients.

“That is way shorter than it should be under any circumstances,” he said.

Most of the board’s 15 members — eight are doctors — have been reluctant to speak publicly.

Eserick “TJ” Watkins, who was appointed two years ago by the Senate Rules Committee, is the exception. He has become a hero to patients rights advocates.

An insider’s complaint asks the state to investigate the board, which he says fails to properly discipline doctor misconduct and dismisses patients’ claims.

In an interview Wednesday, Watkins said he will focus his efforts in the coming year on ensuring patients who were harmed by their physicians have a voice in the disciplinary process.

None of the victims of the doctors who committed sexual misconduct were invited to speak at the reinstatement hearings. Those interviewed by The Times didn’t know their abusers had gotten their licenses back until Times reporters told them.

The victims are the “obvious voice missing in the room when we deliberate in private,” Watkins said, adding that “they are nobody” in the eyes of some fellow board members.

He called the reinstatements “sickening” and questioned whether his colleagues would have voted the same way if the women had been called to testify, if they had been sitting there in the room.

“We’re not protecting the public at all,” Watkins said. “If you can’t stand up in the face of sexual misconduct, then when are you going to stand up?”


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