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Hundreds of health board actions 'hidden' from public each year

Posted: 6:34 PM, Jan 30, 2017
Updated: 2017-01-31 13:46:44Z

An ABC15 investigation has found that hundreds of state board actions taken against healthcare professionals are essentially hidden from the public every year.

The “non-disciplinary” actions, which are considered public records, document everything from simple paperwork issues to arrests and even serious patient care issues.

However, they are shielded by a state law that prohibits them from being posted on the boards’ websites.

Sen. Nancy Barto thinks that’s “ludicrous” and wants the “hidden” discipline to stop.

“I think there’s a lot of information that the public is being denied,” she said. “I think that needs to be fixed and rectified."

In 2010, a provision was shoehorned into a law that allowed boards to conceal non-disciplinary actions from online searches. But after an ABC15 investigation into the state’s dental board, Sen. Barto tried to reverse the law in a broader health board reform bill last year.

Despite receiving broad legislative support, Governor Doug Ducey vetoed the bill , saying it wasn’t strong enough.

To find out how many non-disciplinary actions have been hidden from the public, ABC15 journalists obtained records and statistics from nearly every one of Arizona’s two dozen health boards.

Over a five-year period, ABC15’s review found the state boards handed out non-disciplinary actions more than 1,360 times.

However, the total is likely much higher.

Arizona’s Board of Nursing – one of the state’s largest boards -- didn’t provide statistics. Officials said they don’t track the total number of non-disciplinary actions they issue.

Note: Arizona’s dental board was not included in ABC15’s review of non-disciplinary actions because the station conducted a year-long investigation of the board in 2015. After the reports, a law was passed that year requiring the dental board to post all of its actions.

The station’s review of non-disciplinary actions shows that boards have widely different standards when it comes to non-discipline.

Some boards don’t hand out any non-disciplinary actions or use them only to address administrative issues, such as late license fee payments.

However, other boards hand out non-discipline at a rate twice as high as regular discipline, meaning the majority of those board’s actions aren’t readily available to the public. ABC15 also found boards use the non-disciplinary route to address issues of patient care, document arrests, order additional education, and raise concerns of overbilling or falsifying medical records.

Some examples:
- A doctor ordered to get continuing education for “charging an excessive fee for services.”
- A physical therapist was suspended after being fired for “being under the influence of alcohol while on duty.”
- A doctor was ordered to get continuing education for “making a false statement in the medical record and for misrepresenting provider information to the patient’s insurance company.”
- A social worke r was arrested and charged with domestic violence after police said she grabbed a butcher knife and threatened family members.
- A doctor warned for “excessive use of narcotics for pain management and inadequate monitoring of a patient taking large quantities of narcotics.”
- A massage therapist warned over “concerns that you have not maintained professional or personal boundaries.” The same action also advised the therapist to make sure “breast release forms” are in his client’s files.

ABC15 showed Sen. Barto some of the examples reporters uncovered.

“This is the type of thing we hope is not going to continue to be hidden,” she said. “I think it’s imperative that (the boards) have that pressure of transparency. Everybody does a little bit cleaner work when they know somebody is watching.

“Sunshine is a great disinfectant,” Barto said.

The Governor’s Office told ABC15 Monday that it is backing several pieces of legislation aimed at reforming and changing laws regarding state health boards. A spokesman said the Governor and his staff also would be working with the Legislature to “achieve some of the reforms that didn’t make it through last year.”

Barto also said she’s hopeful that the non-disciplinary issue and other reforms will pass.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at dbiscobing@abc15.com