New Texas Law Bans Anonymous Complaints About Docs

AUSTIN (AP) – A law that took effect this month bars the Texas Medical Board from considering complaints against doctors if they come from anonymous sources — like the complaint from two Winkler County nurses who lost their jobs after anonymously urging the board to investigate a doctor in 2009.

The legislation was a victory for a physicians’ group that sued the medical board in December 2007 over allegations that it was abusing the anonymous complaint process. The suit also accused a former president of the board of using her husband to file anonymous complaints against her competitors to get those physicians disciplined.

Some doctors in the group and others lobbied the Legislature for several years to ban the practice and wanted lawmakers to snip the board’s powers. One such leader, Dr. Steve Hotze of Houston, is a proponent of alternative medicine and president of Texans for Patients’ and Physicians’ Rights, whose No. 1 goal is eliminating anonymous complaints from insurance companies, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, attorneys and competitors.

Some patients and their advocates said they fear the law will have a chilling effect on people’s willingness to complain and ultimately will harm patient safety.

Others, including lawmakers who worked on the legislation from both sides, said they don’t think it will have much effect. They note that anonymous complaints are a small percentage of the total — about 4 percent — and that the medical board will continue to guard the identities of complainants, which are kept confidential. That is, the board knows who’s complaining but won’t tell anyone. With anonymous complaints, the board doesn’t know the complainant’s identity.

The new law, House Bill 680, also requires the board to inform doctors when pharmaceutical companies and insurers file complaints against them.

Since a 2003 tort law made it tougher for consumers to sue doctors, the Texas Medical Board has become the sole recourse for some patients who can’t find lawyers to take their malpractice case because of damage limits. Those patients might not get justice — or money — in court, but they still want the doctor punished and the public to know about it.

Michael Beckham, 57, of Austin said he was turned down by about 25 lawyers before he complained to the Texas Medical Board a few weeks ago after a painful, costly surgery on his back that had to be redone by another doctor.

“I had trepidation, and I still do” about filing a complaint with the medical board, said Beckham, who declined to name the doctor for this article. He said he worries about being blackballed by other doctors, a concern the medical board hears from patients occasionally.

“My personal feeling is, if you were working in the medical community like these two (Winkler County) nurses,” they also should be concerned, Beckham said. “Look at what happened to them.”

Anne Mitchell and Vickilyn Galle, nurses at Winkler County Memorial Hospital in Kermit in West Texas, were charged with felony misuse of official information and fired after officials learned they had filed an anonymous complaint with the medical board about the care being provided by one of the hospital’s doctors, Rolando Arafiles Jr. Arafiles got wind of the complaint and contacted Winkler County Sheriff Robert Roberts, a personal friend. Roberts seized the nurses’ computers and found their letter to the board and figured out their identities.

In the end, the charges against Galle were dropped before the trial, and Mitchell was found not guilty. The nurses split a $750,000 financial settlement from the county, and charges were pressed against the sheriff, Arafiles and others.

The medical board also reprimanded Arafiles and put him on probation for his role in retaliating against the nurses, for improperly treating several patients with thyroid problems and other conditions, and for mishandling patients in the hospital’s emergency department. He must take classes, be monitored by another doctor and pay a $5,000 fine, the board’s order says.

“Though I do not know if the Winkler County nurses would have filed their complaints if they had to attach their names, the new law would keep their names confidential,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin . “One of the problems in the Winkler County case was that the Texas Medical Board released the complaints to county law enforcement personnel who then identified the nurses and retaliated against them. Another piece of legislation that I sponsored in the House, SB 192 , attempted to address this by significantly increasing the penalty against a license holder (doctor) who retaliates against a nurse” for trying to protect patients.

During this year’s legislative session, Howard fended off attempts to require that doctors be informed when nurses or other medical professionals file complaints against them. Howard did not directly answer whether she expects such efforts against nurses and other medical professionals to be resurrected in future years.

James Willmann, general counsel and director of governmental affairs for the Texas Nurses Association, said he doesn’t expect that to happen but said the association will remain vigilant.

Nor is he worried about the ban on anonymous complaints.

“There are so few complaints that are truly anonymous,” Willmann said. “We thought it was a fair compromise.”

Anonymous complaints accounted for 4 percent of the 6,849 complaints received by the Texas Medical Board last year, or about 275 complaints, according to the board.

“It’s a small percent of what we did,” said Mari Robinson, executive director of the board. “We want people to be able to come to us with complaints, but change is always, well, change. You don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The bill’s author, state Rep. Charles Schwertner, a Georgetown orthopedic surgeon, called the legislation “an important reform to the Texas Medical Board.” He wrote in an email that it “will provide accountability and transparency to all actions taken by the board, safeguard patient access to their doctor, and ensure greater quality of care for all Texans.”

Alex Winslow, executive director of Texas Watch, an advocacy group that monitors corporations, insurance and regulatory issues, called the law “a step in the wrong direction” that “could endanger the safety of patients.”

“The bottom line is,” he wrote in an email, “we should be adopting policies that encourage people to bring information forward — not putting limits on how information about violations of patient safety come to light.”

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • Ellen Childress

    This is why I advocate removing the profit from our medical care system. When doctors are no longer able to go into the medical profession to make big bucks, perhaps they will then abide by the spirit of the oath they take to “first, do no harm”. We protect doctors and dentists much too carefully. They are human and they make mistakes. I have no wish to hide behind a designation of “anonymous” if I have a complaint. I want them to know who is filing a complaint and why.

    • T.B.

      Maybe we should just become a communist nation and remove profit from our system completely. It has worked so well in other countries. Since the brightest and most competent people look for financially rewarding careers all of our talent will move to Europe and we will not have to deal with greedy people anymore.

      • Fred

        I agree 100%. Greed is the root of our failure…take the profit it what you want…so we can get back on track to help our fellow man, and not our pocket books.

      • DDT

        Excuse me, Fred and Ellen, our Mongoloid Red Diaper Doper Baby commentators of the day, Communism ALSO FAILED. The Soviet Union collapsed years ago, while us greedy capitalist pigs are still thriving, albeit not at the levels we used to. It’s only when China started to quasi-embrace capitalism that they started to thrive as well, into what they are today. Stop blaming others for YOUR failures as earners and winners.

  • New Texas Law Bans Anonymous Complaints About Docs « Fort Worth News Feeds

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  • Martin K

    If the number of anonymous claims was so small, why the need for this bill?

  • Shelly Zimmermann

    i cant even remember why i used to think the internet was so great, it seems actually kind of lame to the tenth power now…..what comes after this?

  • NiteNurse

    It’s interesting because anyone can make anonymous complaints about nurses and any other licensed practioner. Why are doctors now immune to anonymous complaints? I’ve seen nurses who were simply just vindicative againist another nurse report made up stuff to the state board just to make their lives hell for several months while they are investigated. What goes for one should go for all.

  • Martin Luther

    All Complaints are really anonymous because the Texas Medical Board will not tell the doctors who filed the complaints. The complaints they call confidential but are really anonymous. The law did not help much at all. What is going is that insurance companies that want to deny claims are instructing an organization that work closely with called quackwatch to send in complaints to the medical board from North Carolina about patient care of patients in Texas. Then insiders with the medical board will try to knock down the doc so insurance can avoid paying the claims. Then the state medical board uses quackwatch related people and pays them to be expert witnesses against environmental medicine, chiropractic, nutritional therapy. detoxification etc. It is a very corrupt system and in the past board members were getting paid by Blue Cross Blue Shied while sitting in judgement of physicians who were filing blue cross claims. We all know how those cases turned out. Attorneys of course do not allow confidential complaints and always know the name of the complainant. When this story was posted in the Austin American Statesman they wouldn’t even allow comments on the story. Since the Statesman is a tool of the local government it is not suprising that they would limit free speech especially when Rick Perry is running for president.

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