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Unpaid fines to DOH total $5 million

Unpaid_fines_by_health_profession.jpg

Doctors, nurses and other health professionals owe the state of Florida more than $5 million in unpaid fines and fees imposed over the past five years, according to state records.

Each December, the state writes off those that are more than four years old because of the statute of limitations. Next month, state officials say, the write-off will be $1.28 million.

Medical doctors, MD's, owe by far the most, nearly $1.5 million. Even though nurses are far more numerous, they have only about half as much in unpaid fines and costs.

Here is the chart of the amounts owed by health licensees, in order, based on information provided by the Department of Health at the request of Health News Florida:

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 About 64 percent of the fines and fees that disciplinary boards impose are collected each year, said Amie Rice, chief of the Consumer Services and Compliance Management Unit at the Florida Department of Health.

The subject of unpaid fines came up in June at the Board of Medicine meeting, when Finance Committee Chairman Donald Mullins told DOH staff he was intent on finding ways to cut expenses to avoid having to raise physicians' license fees. While the boards are independent bodies, DOH employees serve as their staff on licensing and in investigating and prosecuting complaints.

At the time, Lucy Gee, director of the Medical Quality Assurance division, mentioned that millions of dollars remained uncollected and noted that some states bar health professionals from renewing their licenses if they have outstanding fines. She said that when DOH proposed a similar statute to the Florida Legislature, it went nowhere.

"I was told I was being greedy," she said. Gee did not say who at the Legislature made that remark, and later declined a request from Health News Florida for more information.

In fact, it took four months to gather the information provided in this article, as DOH required a reporter to submit questions in writing and sent back answers without citing the source for them. Spokeswoman Jennifer Hirst acted as the go-between.

The interview with Rice was provided only after the first two requests for interviews were denied; Hirst said DOH officials were so busy carrying out their assigned tasks that there simply wasn't time for interviews with reporters.

Here is the gist of the responses: When a board levies a fine on a licensee, it also assesses the cost that the state spent on the case. Sometimes costs are minimal, if the complaint is minor and is resolved through a settlement agreement. But they can run into five figures if a licensee contests the complaint and requests a formal evidentiary hearing.

The unpaid amounts on the chart above include both fines and costs.

The licensee -- called a "respondent" in the jargon of administrative law -- is given a certain amount of time to pay the fine and costs by the licensing board. Thirty days before the money is due, if it hasn't arrived, DOH sends a reminder.

At 20 days after the due date, if the money hasn't been paid, DOH sends the account to the Division of Financial Services, which by law is in charge of collecting unpaid debts to the state.

A spokeswoman for DFS said the agency contracts with four private companies to conduct collections, but that overall only about 8 percent of the outstanding debts for the state are recovered. If money comes in, it is sent to the state division to which it is owed and the private company collects a fee.

If the respondent still holds a valid license at the time the debt is sent to collections, the DOH Compliance unit tells Consumer Services to open a new complaint for violating the terms of the first one.

--Health News Florida is an independent online publication dedicated to journalism in the public interest. Questions or Letters to the Editor can be sent to Carol Gentry, Editor, at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.