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Some defend DOH secrecy

By Carol Gentry
2/8/2010 © Health News Florida 

The state Department of Health's decision to withhold information on its consumer web site about pending actions against health professionals -- including arrests -- is entirely appropriate, say attorneys who defend doctors in disciplinary matters. 

“To list arrests and complaints would be a travesty,” said Miami attorney Henry Rubenstein, who is also a chiropractor.

“An arrest is just an arrest,” agreed Julie Gallagher of Tallahassee. “Innocent until proven guilty is still the rule here.” 

She and Rubenstein both said the matter may be different after a conviction.

But the public draws no distinction.

"I would never choose a doctor who's been arrested," said Tanya Tweeton of Plantation, who frequently uses the DOH consumer web site to check out doctors and had always believed it was complete. 

She said she was "horrified" to read in Health News Florida on Friday that it's the DOH policy not to post public information about arrests and convictions until a professional licensing board takes final action, no matter how long that takes. Similarly, DOH omits any indication of an administrative non-criminal complaint, such as wrong-side surgery.

When DOH keeps the profile marked "clear and active," even though a physician has a serious complaint or arrest pending, Tweeton said the agency is not doing its job. "Isn't it their obligation to protect the public?"

Brad Ashwell of Florida Public Interest Research Group agreed. "The public has a right to know about complaints as soon as they’re public record. Who could be opposed to that other than the (Florida Medical Association)?

"The information should be both timely and easily accessible," Ashwell continued. "The fact that it’s not illustrates how much influence the FMA and their lobbyists have in Tallahassee."

It can take years to resolve pending cases, especially if the professional contests the case or if there is a backlog.  

For example, former West Palm Beach Dr. Carlos Contreras has been in a federal prison since pleading guilty to health fraud in September 2008. But the DOH web site still lists him with a “clear and active” medical license. The same is true of three other South Florida doctors who pleaded guilty or were found guilty of health fraud in 2008: Carmen Lourdes Del Cueto, Alejandro Casuso and Walter Proano.

The Florida Board of Medicine voted to accept voluntary relinquishment of the medical licenses from Del Cueto and Casuso on Friday evening at a hearing in Tampa. It usually takes several weeks before the Web site is updated to reflect the board’s actions. Proano’s case is still pending.