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Chicago's Buried Bodies, Part 3: The doctor discipline ball bounces to the legislative court

Chicago's Buried Bodies, Part 3: The doctor discipline ball bounces to the legislative court

Picture of William Heisel

As a health writer for a newspaper, I used to tease reporters who would say, "I have calls in" when they were asked about something happening on their beat.

"You have calls in? Why are you waiting for someone to call you back? Call their boss and their boss's boss until you get your questions answered."

Yet in Monday's post about the Illinois Division of Professional Regulation, I basically told readers, "I have calls in."

And my editor called me on it.

"Who is the accountable person if there don't seem to be any human beings working at the Illinois Division of Professional Regulation?"

She was just as dumbfounded as I was about the lack of transparency in Illinois.

In February, the Illinois Supreme Court made a ruling that forced the division to dismantle its detailed Physician Profile database, covering more than 48,000 physicians and chiropractors in the state. The database, launched in 2008, provided disciplinary histories, practice specialties, insurance information, hospital affiliations and, perhaps most importantly, a list of any malpractice judgments against physicians or malpractice settlements made by the physician in the previous five years.

When the Supreme Court struck down the law that allowed the creation of that database, the state was left with nothing but a weak license lookup system that provides next to nothing.

My editor suggested I find a press person for the division's parent agency, the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. (Confusing, huh?)

So, like any citizen might, I went to the department's home page and clicked on "IDFPR Latest News," trying to find the name and number of a spokesperson for the department.

Four releases in, I found Susan Hofer's number. Hofer told me that not only was the Physician Profile feature lost with the Supreme Court's ruling but the agency lost one of its strongest tools for doctor discipline: the ability to comb through a physician's history for a "pattern of practice."

Before 2005, the state was only allowed to go back through the previous five years of a physician's records to find a pattern of bad behavior. That year, though, the Illinois General Assembly passed a bill that extended the time period to 10 years.

"If you only perform a surgery once a year but you always have a bad outcome, that pattern might not show up in just five years," Hofer said. "Over 10 years, we are able to see these patterns even if the surgeries are done infrequently."

Why did all of this happen? It appears that the patient advocates in the state legislature were outfoxed by the ever powerful doctors' lobby. When the law was written to allow the state to go back 10 years in investigations and to provide malpractice information to the public, those provisions were rolled into a bill that put a cap on malpractice payments.

"The General Assembly carefully wrote the bill so that the law was not severable," Hofer said. "So when the case came before the Supreme Court, both the person bringing the case and the court knew that this was an unseverable law. If any of it was going to be overturned, all of it was going to be."

So what now?

If reporters are interested in a particular doctor, they can contact Hofer at Susan.Hofer@illinois.gov. The rest of the public should fax a request with the doctor's name and license number to 217-557-8073.

And what about the long term? Will the Physician Profile be recreated in some fashion?

Well, the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation has asked the General Assembly to restore the Physician Profile provision and the 10-year statute of limitations before the end of the year, Hofer said.

"They could do that, or they could just extend the law as it is for another year," Hofer said. "We don't know what they will do."

In other words, the department has calls in.

Hofer told me her office had been talking with state Rep. Mary Flowers, a state legislative veteran with a long history of successes, so I called Flowers. You can read what she had to say next week.

Next week: An Illinois state representative tries to make physician backgrounds transparent

Related posts:

Chicago's Buried Bodies, Part 1: Illinois regulators make backgrounding doctors near-impossible

Chicago's Buried Bodies, Part 2: Millions in malpractice judgments amount to nothing in Illinois

Doctors Behaving Badly: Illinois obstetrician's malpractice case leaves one patient victorious, others stonewalled

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