Despite Kaine's effort, speedy complaint review lagging

Associated Press • Apr 7, 2007 at 9:06 AM

NORFOLK, Va. - Despite new state guidelines calling for speedy resolution of complaints involving patient care, only about half are being resolved within 250 days, according to state records.

In January, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine established a goal for state boards that discipline doctors, dentists and people in dozens of other health fields to resolve 90 percent of complaints within 250 days by mid-2009.

The boards, however, appear to have their work cut out for them. The Board of Medicine, which regulates physicians, chiropractors, respiratory therapists and several other types of professionals, took an average of 436.5 days to resolve complaints that were closed in the last quarter of 2006, according to board records.

The Board of Dentistry's record was even worse - taking an average of 525.3 days.

Both boards took longer in 2006 than in 2005 to resolve cases. And most of the state's 12 other health regulatory boards have also been lagging in handling complaints, according to state figures.

"We know there's a real problem with how long this takes," Sandra Whitley Ryals, director of the Department of Health Professions, told members of the Board of Medicine during a recent meeting. "More than a year, sometimes two and three years."

Delays in dealing with such complaints create the potential for health professionals "who are dangers to the public to keep practicing," said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, director of the Public Citizen's Health Research Group, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that assesses state medical boards across the country.

An increase in complaints is only exacerbating the problem.

The health professions boards received 7,065 complaints in the fiscal year that ended June 30 - up from 5,611 in the previous fiscal year. The Board of Medicine had 3,160 complaints in the latest fiscal year - up from 2,039 in the previous 12-month period.

Tougher laws passed in the last few years mandating that hospitals and other health care facilities report potential violations are partly responsible for the rise in complaints, Whitley Ryals said. A better public understanding of how and where to complain is also a factor, she said.

Prior to Kaine's initiative in January, the health boards already had internal goals for resolving complaints within 30 to 440 days, depending on the type of case. But the boards failed to meet those goals in more than half the cases. Faye Lemon, the health professions department's director of enforcement, said investigators' workloads have increased and morale is suffering. The health professions department is looking for ways to streamline the complaint resolution process, Whitley Ryals said. Currently, once a complaint is logged, an investigator reviews it and gives it a priority level. The most serious include accusations of sexual misconduct or physical harm to patients from negligent care. The goal is to resolve those cases within 30 days, Lemon said. Investigators will continue to look into the lowest-priority cases, such as allegations of misleading advertising, but may keep those cases on the back burner for a longer time, Lemon said. The governor's office may consider funding additional investigative staff members, said Jane Kusiak, executive director of the Council on Virginia's Future, the group chaired by Kaine that set the new goals. "To strike targets without aligning your resources to them, then they're just pie in the sky where you can't really hold an agency accountable," Kusiak said. The council oversees the Virginia Performs Web site, which the public can use to track progress on the 250-day goal and improvement measures for all state agencies. --- On the Net: Virginia Performs: http://www.vaperforms.virginia.gov/ AP-ES-04-07-07 1400EDT

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