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Reporter's Notebook: Is Connecticut’s system for licensing health care professionals adequate?

Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public Radio

An investigation by The Accountability Project raises familiar questions about the state's system for licensing health care workers and investigating misconduct complaints.

For members of Connecticut’s health care community, and for those who advocate on behalf of patients in the state, an investigation published this month by The Accountability Project likely struck a familiar chord.

After searching licensing records from more than 20 states, reporters from Connecticut Public found that information about past discipline and felony charges in other jurisdictions was missing from the public profiles of more than a dozen doctors eligible to practice here.

Some of those sanctions stemmed from clerical errors or bureaucratic oversights, such as failing to complete a continuing education course. But others dealt directly with allegations of substandard care, including two instances in which patients died.

Connecticut law requires state health officials to collect and report that information on a public website so that patients are fully informed when they choose a medical provider. But as the TAP investigation showed, some physician profiles were incomplete, painting a misleading picture for the public.

Officials from the Department of Public Health acknowledged the problem, and are now working to address it. And while that work will likely soon be complete, the findings of the investigation raise a larger question – one that has surfaced with regularity in recent years: Is Connecticut’s system for licensing health care professionals adequate?

More than a decade ago, another news organization delved into that topic, finding that Connecticut allowed some physicians to practice freely in the state after their licenses were suspended or revoked in neighboring Massachusetts, Rhode Island or New York. The investigation by the Connecticut Health I-Team prompted lawmakers to tighten the rules for doctor discipline, making it easier for investigators to act based on findings issued in another state.

A pair of consecutive state audits then flagged lengthy delays in the complaint investigation process, concerns that were later remedied, but underscored a structural challenge in Connecticut’s system. A single section within DPH licenses healthcare workers and investigates potential misconduct. And its mandate is broad; it oversees not only doctors and nurses but some 65 professions, from hairdressers to veterinarians, art therapists and embalmers.

In other states, independent boards shoulder some of that work. Here, the Connecticut Medical Examining Board has no budget, and no team of investigators to delve into complaints. Members have voiced frustration about its limited remit, though that opinion isn’t universally shared.

Connecticut will get another reference point soon against which it can measure its performance. The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen is set to release an update to its research comparing medical boards across the United States. It should provide an opportunity for policymakers and patients alike to discuss how Connecticut’s system stacks up.

Jim Haddadin is an editor for The Accountability Project, Connecticut Public's investigative reporting team. He was previously an investigative producer at NBC Boston, and wrote for newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

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