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DOH to let Sunshine in

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By Carol Gentry
4/2/2010 © Health News Florida

A big gap in consumer information on health-care professionals in Florida is about to get filled: The state Department of Health will begin posting pending complaints online, according to an internal memo.

Equally important, members of the public who use the Medical Quality Assurance lookup site will be alerted to the fact that there's a pending complaint against a health professional. 

Until now, pending administrative complaints could be public documents for months or even years without anyone knowing they existed outside the Department of Health and the physicians' defense bar.

In fact, even some professionals who are in prison still are listed as having "clear/active" licenses on the DOH license lookup site, as Health News Florida reported in early February.  

When Brad Ashwell, director of the consumer group FPIRG heard of the coming change from a reporter this morning, he applauded. "We're happy to see DOH doing the right thing -- empowering consumers with information to make informed health care decisions."

His group, Florida Public Interest Research Group, has pressed for all complaints that are filed at the Department of Health against health professionals. But the powerful Florida Medical Association and other professional groups has said that it's unfair to destroy a reputation and a practice based on flimsy complaints spurred by a minor disagreement, such as a dispute over a bill.

So the Legislature agreed to keep complaints secret during the investigative phase, until there was evidence established that a professional had committed an infraction worth taking to the next level: a "probable cause panel" of the appropriate board, such as the Board of Medicine, Board of Nursing, etc. 

When that panel decided there was "probable cause" to file an official administrative complaint, it officially became a public record 10 days later.

However, finding out about the complaint was another matter. It has not been DOH's practice to list any anything about it on the consumer information site. The information has been held in DOH files until the administrative process worked its way through and the appropriate board voted to take final action -- even if the process took years.

"To make it public while the due process is going on, that's just not the procedure of the department," a DOH spokeswoman told HNF in February. 

Some -- especially attorneys who represent health professionals in administration actions -- had defended the policy of keeping the pending complaints off the Internet. As one said in a Health News Florida article, "Innocent until proven guilty is still the rule."

Members of the public reacted with surprise and anger to news that DOH was withholding the information on pending complaints, especially for accused felons.

"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.

News of the online project was sent to department officials April 1 in an internal memo by Lucy Gee, director of the Medical Quality Assurance division. She has been working on the project for a long time, she said today: "We're excited."

The department, which has already run a pilot project, according to Gee's memo, will be in full "user-acceptance" testing mode next week, with launch date set for next Friday, April 9. 

--Carol Gentry, Editor, can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.