Furloughs force delay in doctors’ licensing

The licensing of doctors in California has been crippled by Gov. Schwarzenegger's decision to force state employees to take three unpaid days off each month, state and medical authorities say.

More than 5,100 work hours per month have been lost in the licensing and enforcement programs because of the furloughs, they said. 

"The furloughs have significantly slowed board operations, particularly in our licensing program," said Candis Cohen, spokeswoman for the Medical Board of California.

The department that oversees the medical board, the state Department of Consumer Affairs, said the furloughs were a necessary 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," said Consumer Affairs Department spokesman Luis Farias.

The head of the medical board's licensing staff, Deborah Pellegrini, told board members at a July meeting 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 medical board's five-member executive committee is scheduled to meet Oct. 1 in Southern California to consider the impact of the furloughs. Pellegrini is expected to present a detailed report to the board.

Renee Threadgill, head of the board's enforcement program, said that 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.

"I cannot stress how damaging this will be to our ability to decrease the timeline for our cases," Threadgill said.

The impact of the furloughs has been felt in the medical profession, according to the California Medical Association, which represents about 35,000 California doctors.

"We know a lot of Californians are having access problems," said CMA spokesman Andrew LaMar. "There are hundreds and hundreds of physicians who could be out there working but are waiting because of this backlog."

According to information from the CMA based on state data, at the end of August there were about 7,200 pending license applications before the board, and some 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. 

The board staff's initial review in the licensing process, by statute, 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.

"CMA has gotten numerous complaints from our members on delays in licensing," said Long Do, director of the CMA's litigation division. "They can't start practicing medicine. These are folks who have obtained an employment position, or fellowship, but they simply can't start treating patients. "This (the delay) hurts physicians who are applying, it hurts physicians who have licenses and it hurts the public…. There is a physician shortage and it only is going to get worse. The population of the state is aging, and we would certainly want the medical board to process those applications sooner."

There are delays in enforcement as well, although just how long and how many are affected is not certain, Do said, in part because of the confidential nature of the process. Of the number of physicians investigated for complaints, fewer than one in five – about 17 percent – lead to formal accusations by the board, he said.

The Medical Board of California licenses about 100,000 physicians in California.

Ed's Note: This version corrects an earlier story with the name of the chief of the licensing program, Deborah Pellegrini.

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