Court sides with Schwarzenegger on medical board furloughs, fee shift

A San Francisco Superior Court judge, siding with the Schwarzenegger administration, ruled Thursday that the forced furloughs of state medical board employees were legal, as was the transfer of doctors’ fees to other agencies.

The decision followed a lawsuit filed last fall by the 35,000-member California Medical Association, which challenged the furloughs and contended that the transfer of $6 million in fees was unconstitutional. The CMA also said the furloughs crippled the California Medical Board’s ability to license doctors and investigate complaints in a timely way. The board licenses about 100,000 doctors in California.

The administration said the actions were “difficult but necessary” to help resolve the state’s dire budget problems. The administration has also sought the state Supreme Court to review a number of furlough-related cases, most brought by public-employee unions.

The CMA’s suit was one of more than two-dozen lawsuits challenging the budgeting practices of the administration.

The CMA, which argued that the taking of the fees was unconstitutional, is considering whether to appeal.

The administration’s department that oversees the medical board, the state Department of Consumer Affairs, said the furloughs were a critical part of the budget-cutting strategies that the state employed to help balance its books.

“The furloughs are just a necessary tool to help conserve critical funds,” Consumer Affairs Department spokesman Luis Farias said earlier.

Last summer, the head of the Medical Board’s licensing staff told board members that her office had suffered a 15 percent loss in productivity, or a loss of about 810 employee work hours per month in a staff of 46 people. The head of the board’s enforcement program said “the impact of these three days off for just the enforcement staff will result in the loss of 4,272 hours of work, which is almost equivalent to losing 28 (or) 29 positions each month, or think of shutting down almost five district offices each month.” The enforcement program has about 153 employees.

The CMA suit cited similar numbers.

The licensing slowdown comes at a time when the shortage of doctors is increasing, in part because of the natural aging of practicing physicians. According to figures cited by CMA, California leads the nation in the percentage of active physicians who aged 60 years or older, and that about a third of California doctors are aged 56 or older. The CMA said the state licensing slowdown has resulted in delays for hundreds of physicians who otherwise would be practicing.

By statute, licensing is supposed to take 60 business days or less, or about 90 calendar days. In reality, it is taking about 5 ½ months, according to the CMA, which has compiled information from its members and the board.

According to figures based on state data, there were about 7,200 pending license applications before the board in August, and 1,806 had not gone through the initial licensing review. That figure was about 137 more than two months earlier, at the end of June, when 1,669 applications had not completed the initial review.

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