Health department investigations sent to Florida prosecutors

State lawmakers want to find out why many disciplinary cases were not referred to prosecutors, as required by state law.

By Damon Adams — Posted Feb. 21, 2005

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The Florida Dept. of Health has sent about 16,000 disciplinary investigation cases involving health care professionals to prosecutors to see if criminal charges should be sought.

That means that some physicians previously investigated for misconduct might hear from prosecutors.

The health department forwarded the information after its inspector general found that the agency had failed to refer to prosecutors cases in which physicians, nurses and other health care practitioners might have committed crimes. Florida law requires the department to send such cases to prosecutors.

The inspector's probe was prompted by a Clearwater, Fla., man who questioned if prosecutors had received cases of sexual misconduct against psychotherapists, including psychiatrists and psychologists, health officials said. The inspector found that the department had no record of referring many cases to prosecutors since 1992.

"There is a possibility that a practitioner may not have been prosecuted criminally because of this. We're working to remedy it so it never happens again," said Lindsay Hodges, department spokeswoman.

In a memo, Florida Health Secretary John Agwunobi, MD, MPH, said he was "disappointed" by the January inspector's report and said the situation was "unacceptable."

Health department officials said prosecutors already might have known about some cases because the allegations could have been made to police initially.

Dr. Agwunobi told The Tampa Tribune that he blamed the lax oversight on the shuffling of bureaucratic responsibility for more than a decade. Some Florida legislators are calling for an investigation to see if some health care practitioners went unpunished for criminal violations.

The Florida Medical Assn. said it was optimistic that the health department would resolve the problem.

"The Florida Medical Assn. strongly supports the efforts that Secretary Agwunobi has made to improve the regulatory system of Florida's health practitioners. His department, while regulating more than 850,000 health care practitioners and facilities, and investigating over 40,000 complaints last year, has been ranked No. 1 in disciplinary actions by large states by the Federation of State Medical Boards," medical association spokeswoman Lisette Mariner said in a statement.

"The FMA is confident that the department will continue to improve its comprehensive disciplinary system. A strong regulatory system benefits not only the patients of Florida, but also physicians, who hold their professional responsibilities in the highest regard."

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