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Ridley-Thomas says he will recall bill to restore chiropractic board’s budget

Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, said late Wednesday that he is planning on recalling a bill to his committee that would restore funding to the troubled Board of Chiropractic Examiners. The decision comes after the Bureau of State Audits released a 119-page report on the board that found significant problems.

Last year, Ridley-Thomas carried legislation to cut the board's budget in half, from $3.1 million to $1.5 million. On Monday, a bill to restore that funding – AB450 by Assemblyman Bill Emmerson, R-Redlands – cleared the Senate Business and Professions Committee by a 7-0 vote. 
 

However, he and Emmerson made an agreement that Ridley-Thomas could recall AB450 to his committee if the state auditors report found any troubling new problems with current board members. Reached late Wednesday, he said the report included new information that made him decide to bring AB450 back.

"It seems to me that it is totally appropriate to do that," Ridley-Thomas said. "There were things in the report that we didn't know in terms of the time lag on priority enforcement issues, and we wanted to clearer about the cooperation between board and staff and the Department of Consumer Affairs. I'm going to dig a little deeper."

Ridley-Thomas said he may also seek the resignation of at least one board member. While he declined to name the board member, the two most controversial are Richard Tyler and Franco Columbu. Both are friends of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from his bodybuilding days. Tyler did step down from the board's chairmanship last year and is currently in a one-year grace period after the expiration of his first four-year term; he is eligible to be confirmed to a second four-year term.

"My sense is that some of those board members have been a complete embarrassment to the public process of governance," Ridley-Thomas said. "If I were the chief executive of the state, they couldn't serve in my administration."

However, a representative for the DCA said that Ridley-Thomas has told them he was not going to seek any resignations or dismissals of board members.

Reached on Tuesday, Emmerson said that he thought the bill was going to have a clear path.

"I don't believe he will (recall the bill)," Emmerson said. "I think the new administration at the chiropractic board is taking care of the issues and resolving their problems." 

The centerpiece of that new administration is Brian Stiger. Formerly a staffer with the Department of Consumer Affairs, Stiger has made a career as a "fixer" for troubled state boards. He was brought in last year and eventually become the board's executive director. He welcomed the committee vote, saying it would allow the board to comply with the recommendations from the state auditors report. Part of this effort would be hiring some new staff. The budget cuts forced the board to cut its staff from 17 people to six. With one possible exception, Stiger said, any former staffers would need to reapply if they wanted to come back to the board.

"We're very pleased and hopeful that this bill will make it all the way through to restore our budget," Stiger said, adding, "It's pretty difficult to initiate all the reforms without all of our funding."

It was just over a year ago that the chiropractic board burst out of obscurity and onto the front pages of newspapers covering California state government. Members of the board and the staff leveled charges of corruption and mismanagement at each other, numerous lawsuits were filed, and legislators moved to reign in the board's autonomy. But with the board set to meet Thursday at its headquarters in Natomas, many people close to the situation said they thought the board was on its way to putting its problems behind it.

The auditors report found plenty of blame to go around. It found serious problems with both the staff and the board members. This included Open Meeting Act violations and improper communications between board members. But it also found that the board had taken significant steps to address problems around management, procedures and enforcement actions against problem chiropractors.

All of the board staffers at the center of the controversy have moved on. Former Executive Director Catherine Hayes is now a staff services manager at the DCA. Jana Tuton, the deputy attorney general once assigned to the board, is no longer listed in state salary databases; according to several people familiar with the board, she has retired from state service.

Maggie Craw, the board's chiropractic consultant since 2002, resigned in August and reportedly moved out of state. The auditors report contained language that appeared to back up claims by some chiropractic groups that Craw did not meet the official qualifications for the consultant position:

"Employee B did not include any information regarding experience working as a practicing chiropractor. Because the minimum qualifications do not clearly define the phrase ‘practice of chiropractic,' we were unable to determine whether the applicant met the minimum qualifications."

The board and staff have been working closely with chiropractic organizations to establish procedures for disciplining chiropractors who break professional rules or are subjected to patient complaints. Stiger said this process should be complete by July 1. On Tuesday, Schwarzenegger sent a letter to new chair, Fred Lerner, praising the board for making improvements.

"Things are a lot better than they were in the past," said Charles Davis, president of the International Chiropractors Association of California, which has been highly critical of the now-departed board staffers. "There needs to be a regulatory agency with enforcement, but it needs to be proper enforcement. No one is against that. We don't have the final say on anything, but at least they know our concerns."

The board has also appears to have put to bed one of the most contentious issues around the practice of chiropractic. In December, Stiger signed off on an opinion from the legal affairs department at the DCA finding that the manipulation under anesthesia is legal for chiropractors as long as they have the proper help from an anesthesiologist.

There is also the matter of three pending lawsuits that the board will discuss in closed session. Hayes sued the board for allegedly illegally firing her a year ago; the auditors report found that board members did take illegal actions in trying to dismiss her during the contentious board meeting that landed them in headlines.

David Hinchee, a former board staffer who was laid off in January, has a suit pending against Hayes, alleging she engaged in harassing behavior toward him for not going along with numerous actions she took as director. Finally, Bryan Meredith, a chiropractor who was disciplined by the board for allegedly illegally practicing MUA, has a suit pending against Craw and the board for taking action against him without reason. His attorney, Roger Calton, said he has been working with the board toward a settlement.

"We don't have the settlement finalized yet," Calton said. "But I do expect that it will be resolved."

According to some people close to the situation, the problems experienced by the board have deep roots and won't necessarily be resolved in the next few months. These go back to the establishment of the board via a poorly drafted 1922 voter initiative – and to a rivalry between doctors and chiropractors that some say has been going on far longer than that.

"I think it was appropriate to have a dentist step in when there was a problem between the doctors and chiropractors," joked Emmerson, who is an orthodontist.

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