Health commissioner slams Connecticut medical board
■ The state medical society supports an examining board with investigative powers.
By Damon Adams — Posted Nov. 15, 2004
The medical board's handling of a plastic surgeon's case has sparked turmoil and prompted a Connecticut health official to call for abolishing the board in that state.
The controversy erupted in September when the Connecticut Medical Examining Board voted to allow Norwalk, Conn., plastic surgeon Steven Herman, MD, to keep his license after complications during an abdominoplasty left a woman in a coma.
The state Dept. of Public Health, which investigates complaints against doctors, had uncovered numerous violations and found Dr. Herman used an uncertified anesthetist in the April 30 procedure. His license was suspended in June, then a hearing was held.
Health department officials recommended the board revoke the surgeon's license. Instead, the board reprimanded Dr. Herman, fined him $10,000 and said he could perform surgery if his office got recertified by a national office-surgery accreditation organization.
"We felt we had pretty severely sanctioned him," said Dennis G. O'Neill, MD, medical board chair.
But Deputy Health Commissioner Norma Gyle criticized the board publicly in an October article in The Hartford Courant, saying the board should be abolished because it protected doctors and didn't serve the public well. She said it was time to find another way to judge cases against physicians.
Gyle did not return phone messages left by American Medical News. Department spokesman William Gerrish said: "We did not concur with the board's actions that they took in that particular case."
The department is reviewing how best to serve the public, and it has contacted the Federation of State Medical Boards to explore how to improve the system, Gerrish said.
Hartford, Conn., attorney Elliott Pollack, who represented Dr. Herman and is a former medical board member, said the board has been fair in its decisions. "It would be unfair to say the ... board and the department of public health have been coddling and protecting doctors," he said.
Some support a stronger board
Dr. O'Neill said state law requires that the board be appointed by the governor and composed of 15 volunteer members (nine physicians, five public members and one physician assistant). However, the board has not been filled to capacity during the past decade and currently has 11 slots filled, he said.
He said it's not true that the board only sanctions a small percentage of doctors brought before it. For every 100 complaints against physicians, 15% are presented to the board while the remainder are investigated and dismissed by the public health department, Dr. O'Neill said. During a 15-month span from 2002-2003, the board sanctioned 44 of 48 physicians who came before it, he added.
"What Deputy Commissioner Gyle is trying to do is to get some notoriety by bashing doctors," Dr. O'Neill said.
The board has said publicly the current process of disciplining doctors is outdated and cumbersome. Board leaders say they have tried to work with the public health department to speed up the hearing process and standardize sanctioning of problem physicians.
During the last state legislative session, the Connecticut State Medical Society supported creating a medical board with powers to investigate complaints, said Tim Norbeck, CSMS executive director. But no measure passed.
CSMS believes the board would be more effective if given the resources it needs, Norbeck said. "We certainly support a fully funded, independent medical examining board. I doubt it would be abolished. I would hope the state would fund it."
State medical leaders are not sure how legislators will respond. But they agree some changes may be needed.
"If this is what the Legislature needs to go through to convert to an independent medical board, then I'm all for it," Dr. O'Neill said. "What I don't want to happen is you scrap this and put in something worse."