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State doesn’t reveal doctors’ arrests

By Carol Gentry
2/5/2010 © Health News Florida

Dr. Carlos Contreras has been in a federal prison since he pleaded guilty to health fraud in September 2008. But a state consumer web site still lists him in West Palm Beach with a “clear and active” medical license -- and he's far from alone.

It's the policy of Florida's Department of Health not to post public information about arrests and convictions until a professional licensing board takes final action, no matter how long that takes. 

So the DOH consumer web site shows Contreras at his old address in West Palm Beach with a medical license still “clear and active.” 

The web site, which is supposed to inform the public about health professionals in the state, runs months and years behind real life. Even though pending complaints are public records after "probable cause" has been found by a Board of Medicine committee, they are not listed on the consumer site of doctors' profiles. 

No exception is made for criminal convictions. The information is held until the administrative process works its way through and the Board of Medicine votes.

"To make it public while the due process is going on, that's just not the procedure of the department," said Eulinda Smith, a spokeswoman for DOH. 

If a member of the public wants to know whether there is a pending case, she said, "they can always call us."  It is not clear how the public is supposed to know that DOH omits the information and that a call is necessary.

A member of the Board of Medicine, informed of the policy on Friday, said he was surprised. "It's weird," said Bradley Levine.

For Sen. Don Gaetz, chairman of the Senate Health Regulation Committee, it's more than weird. "All the (state) Web sites need to be timely and accurate about these providers," he said.

DOH's policy of omitting from the consumer web site any information about pending complaints, even after they become public record, stretches back for years, ever since it began posting information about health professionals on the Internet. Previous spokesmen have attributed the policy to a concern for protection of doctors' due-process rights, with lobbying by medical groups and the defense bar. Others have said it would take too much work.   

But Gaetz, R-Niceville, said it wouldn't be all that big a deal to put an asterisk on the pages of doctors who have a pending complaint, to alert the public. He said it's especially important if they've been arrested.   

DOH should show "a little dose of common sense," he said.

Brad Ashwell of Florida Public Interest Research Group said Gaetz is right. "It's like any transparency issue," he said. "It would empower the public."

Among the physicians who are listed on the DOH license veritification site as having "clear, active" licenses are:

--Three South Florida physicians who were arrested in June 2008 and charged with Medicare and Medicaid fraud in connection with what Attorney Gen. Bill McCollum called "outrageous billing patterns" amounting to more than $15 million. They are: Dr. Alejandro Casuso, Dr. Carmen Lourdes Del Cueto and Dr. Walter F. Proano.

According to a DOH investigative report which is not available on the doctors' online profiles, Del Cueto and Casuso are in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud. Both signed agreements last year to relinquish their medical licenses in return for shorter sentences, the report shows. The Board of Medicine was scheduled to accept those formal relinquishments this evening at a meeting in Tampa, after which DOH will presumably update their online profiles.  

Proano and another doctor, Manuel Barbeite, were found guilty of health fraud in a jury trial last August, according to a Department of Justice release. According to the DOH consumer site, Barbeite is under an emergency suspension order filed by the Secretary of DOH, while Proano is listed as having a "clear, active" license without any history of disciplinary action.  It is not clear why the profiles differ. 

--Fred Eli Dweck, a Broward physician who was indicted and arrested in December as part of a nationwide crackdown on Medicare fraud involving billing for home-health services that were not necessary or not carried out, according to the FBI.

--Jeffrey Friedlander, who faces trial in federal court soon on charges of using a chain of pain clinics to distribute narcotics to addicts, students and others. He was arrested last April, according to federal documents.