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Opinion

An unexpected but welcome thank-you

Reporters who call attention to problems at a public agency sometimes shake things up. But we seldom get a thank-you – especially not from the head of the agency.

That happened on Friday in Jacksonville.

Surgeon General Frank Farmer, who also holds the title of Secretary for the Florida Department of Health, told the Board of Medicine that he’s made a number of changes in medical discipline since taking the job in April in response to reports in and conversations with  “the press” that were backed up by evidence. (After the meeting, he confirmed that he was referring to Health News Florida).

Dr. Farmer said he learned of incidents in which health professionals who were arrested were able to keep practicing for months – even years -- after bailing out of jail. DOH didn’t even know about the criminal charges.

Sometimes, as HNF reported, DOH didn’t know anything was wrong even after a criminal conviction. Some who served prison terms were still listed on the DOH web site as having “clear, active” licenses.

Farmer said that when he looked into the cause of the problem, he found out there was a breakdown in communications between the department and law-enforcement agencies. Some police agencies had stopped collaborating with DOH because they felt the agency took too long to act.

So Farmer set out to fix that, with a number of steps outlined in an HNF story last month.

He appointed three top lieutenants – Renee Alsobrook, deputy general counsel for prosecution; Richard Solze, executive staff director; and Lucy Gee, director of Medical Quality Services -- to serve as liaisons with federal, state and local law-enforcement agencies:

Now, he said, DOH is working with law enforcement agencies on investigations of pill-mill doctors, which means prosecutors can prepare an emergency suspension order and have it ready for Farmer’s signature.

The previous average delay in imposing an emergency suspension was five months, he said. Now he’s close to his goal of 19 days.

He said he also learned from us about cases languishing for five, six, seven years without action. So he checked and discovered that prosecutors were holding off on some cases that were too important to drop because they lacked enough evidence to be sure they’d prevail.

So Farmer said he told them to “be aggressive and take (your) chances,” not to be so afraid of losing that they fail to do their jobs.

Farmer told the Board of Medicine, “We are making progress in the things that matter.”

He added, “We don’t like to hear things from the press sometimes. But when they’re right, we need to hear it.”

Thank you, Dr. Farmer, for listening.
 
--Carol Gentry, Editor, can be reached at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.