Physicians’ Group Sues Medical Board: Action Protests Anonymous Complaints Used Against Doctors

AUSTIN, (Houston Chronicle (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) December 27 — A national physicians’ group has filed a federal lawsuit against the Texas Medical Board accusing it of using anonymous complaints to intimidate and retaliate against doctors.

The Association of American Physicians and Surgeons has asked a federal court in Texarkana to immediately stop the board from accepting anonymous complaints. The situation has reached the crisis point for patients and doctors,” Jane Orient, executive director of AAPS, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit that was filed Friday. “Our members are too afraid of retaliation to sue the board as individuals.” The medical board was closed Wednesday and staff could not be reached for comment. The board is a state agency that licenses doctors and investigates complaints.

In October, board officials defended their record during a legislative hearing dominated by angry doctors. Physicians told lawmakers they are being harassed through anonymous complaints and are having to spend too much time and money fighting minor charges.

The agency was once derided for failing to protect patients from dangerous doctors. But a 2003 law gave the board greater authority to suspend licenses when it believes a doctor poses an immediate danger.

Complaints have increased 39 percent since 2003, when the law was changed. But officials have said fewer than 2 percent of complaints are anonymous, and that such a process is needed to protect whistleblowers against retaliation from powerful doctors.

The lawsuit alleges that it is the board and its physician members who are using anonymous complaints for retaliation. Board president Roberta Kalafut, an Abilene doctor, is accused of arranging for her husband to file anonymous complaints against other physicians, including her competitors in Abilene, and then working inside the board to discipline those doctors. Kalafut was out of the country and could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but in a November interview with the Houston Chronicle she denied similar allegations as “baseless and untrue.” She said at the time that none of the anonymous complaints that resulted in disciplinary orders came from her hometown. “I can’t influence the process. No one can. There are too many hands on this,” Kalafut said.

State regulators told the legislative panel they are working on a streamlined system for minor complaints, such as doctors who fail to meet continuing education requirements. The lawsuit alleges conflicts of interest and privacy breaches by board members and expert witnesses hired by the board. It wants some cases reopened.

“Doctors in Texas should not be forced to practice in this atmosphere of fear and intimidation,” said Orient.

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