Was your doctor checked out before becoming licensed in Arizona?

PHOENIX - The Arizona Medical Board checks the backgrounds of physicians before they can get a license to practice in the state of Arizona.

But, the ABC15 Investigators found new policies that make it easier and faster for doctors to be licensed, could also be making it easier for bad doctors to get through unnoticed.

Linda Scorzo worked in the Licensing Department at the Arizona Medical Board for six years. When the new, streamlined process was implemented, she said she immediately had concerns too many corners were being cut.

"To me it's a matter of time before someone is harmed," Scorzo said.

SUSPENSIONS AND TERMINATIONS?

Before the changes, Scorzo would regularly check a physician's schooling, training and work experience.

They'd check everything -- "their medical school, all of their training, their certifications, their exam scores and their employment and privilege history," Scorzo said.

They also double checked all the physicians' previous licenses in other states to make sure that there were no actions taken against them, especially suspensions and terminations.

"We need to know where they previously worked, if there was ever an incident where they worked. And, if there was ever an incident, was it rectified or not?" according to Eric Evans, who also worked at the board.

But, the ABC15 Investigators found, in late 2011 employees were told to stop making many of those checks.

Instead, they had to speed up the process. During that time, 1,530 doctors were licensed to practice in Arizona, without getting the same background checks that were required before.

Scorzo worries that, as a result, doctors with past troubles were licensed because of the more lax background checks.

"You could have an applicant who has, a physician who has a problem in another state, that you don't want out here practicing, out here setting up a shingle," said Scorzo.

DRASTIC RESULTS

Both Scorzo and Evans told us routine employment and hospital history checks were stopped. If a doctor said they were board certified, their word was good enough. No further checks were needed.

The ABC15 Investigators obtained a memo from the medical board stating "licensees will not need to submit proof."

"You could be going to have some really invasive surgery, and we're saying that Dr. X is board certified," said Evans. "And they're really not."

But Arizona Medical Board Executive Director Lisa Wynn said she was just trying to speed up an outdated licensing process.

"We were really in the process of finding ways to eliminate steps that didn't make sense anymore, but continue to protect the public," she said.

 The results were drastic.

Records show the average time the board spent licensing a physician before the licensing changes were implemented, in late 2011, was 41 days.

One year later, it was down to just 10 days. And, last April, doctors were being approved to practice in Arizona in just three days.

Wynn pointed to the National Practitioner Data Bank saying the board can check with the site to verify much of the same information that used to be independently verified.

If there were any problems that resulted from the data bank, they would immediately investigate, Wynn said.

But, even the website itself states it should not be a sole source for verification, saying "it should be used in conjunction with, not in replacement of, information from other sources." And Scorzo said red flags may not appear on the website for months.

Both Scorzo and Evans said they expressed their concerns for public safety to the board. Both were fired shortly after.

"I was called in for meetings, told by the Deputy Director and the Executive Director that I needed to be on board with the changes," said Scorzo.

The ABC15 Investigators also spoke with two employees who were fired and another two who quit. They all say they expressed concerns about the board's direction.

Wynn would not comment on personnel matters.

POSSIBLE LEGISLATIVE ACTION

Prompted by a complaint from Scorzo, the state legislature's Ombudsman Office launched an investigation into the medical board's new licensing process. 

They found the board violated state law by relying on the data bank and "not verifying a five year history of hospital affiliations and employment."

So, in October 2012 – 11 months after the licensing changes took effect – the board resumed making those checks.

But, even though more than 1,500 doctors were licensed in that time period, Wynn said, "Not one single patient safety issue has come up as a result of that decision."

But that worries state Senator Nancy Barto (R-District 15).

"You don't see the public harm tomorrow, when you change your licensing verification forms today," said Barto.

Barto is the Chairman of the Health and Human Services Committee, which oversees the Medical Board.

She thinks legislative action is a possibility. "We need to make sure that boards are following the rules for the sake of the public," she said.

Barto is waiting for the results of

two new investigations by the Ombudsman. One involves the Medical Board regarding medical licensure and board term limits.

The other was brought by Eric Evans and involves the Arizona Regulatory Board of Physician Assistants practices regarding licensure. Lisa Wynn is also Executive Director of this board.

Wynn said the board is licensing doctors according to the law, but also wants to change that law in order to streamline the licensing process.

You can check your doctor's medical specialty online by going to the American Board of Medical Specialties .

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