California Medical Association Seeks to Limit License Probation

The California Medical Association, which represents about 43,000 of the state’s licensed physicians, is working with state Assemblywoman Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, on a new bill, Assembly Bill 505, which would bar the Medical Board of California from entering a settlement agreement placing on probation any physician who has committed "serious infractions." The "serious infractions" being considered – a felony conviction; drug or alcohol abuse; or sexual acts/exploitation – would compel the physician to either surrender their license or participate in and complete a full hearing.

The bill is intended to address concerns “that patients felt complaints weren’t taken seriously” by the medical board, said association spokeswoman Joanne Adams. She said the bill deals with “the root cause of those concerns by taking settlement for probation off the table for serious offenses.” The serious infractions are those that directly “harm patient safety or health.” Currently, about 635 doctors – or 0.4 percent – of the state’s 141,900 licensed physicians are on probation, for offenses ranging from overprescribing addictive drugs to sexual misconduct.

Under the bill, doctors would not be eligible for probation until they’ve received a full hearing before an Administrative Law Judge with the Office of Administrative Hearings. As of this week, the bill’s language does not address whether those doctors would be allowed to continue practicing until completion of the hearing or subject to an interim suspension order. The Bill has been referred to the Assembly Committee on Business and Professions.

The Bill is the Association's reply to a prior, alternative proposal by the Consumers Union and Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, mandating patient notification for all physicians on probation. In the past, the Association has opposed mandatory patient notification, calling it a “duplicative burden that will interfere with patient care.” It said details about doctors who were disciplined with probation were readily available online and having to inform patients would “take time away” from doctors’ limited appointment schedules. Sen. Hill's bill (Senate Bill 1033) died on the Senate floor in 2015, 15-13, with 12 voters abstaining.

By ensuring that discipline short of license surrender for "serious infractions" would not be permitted prior to a public administrative hearing, the Association appears to hope to avoid the requirements of mandatory notification for physicians on probation for less serious infractions. This would likely result in many more physicians opting for a full administrative hearing, as the only alternative would be surrender.