- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 23, 2007

RICHMOND (AP) — The state Board of Medicine will give staff members more authority over many disciplinary cases to try to reduce a backlog of more than 2,000 complaints against doctors and other health professionals.

The bulk of those cases are accusations of misconduct, such as improper advertising, that pose no significant risk to patients, board officials said.

Since 2004, violations were found in fewer than 15 percent of these low-level cases. The board voted Thursday to give staff members authority to close such cases on their own if not enough evidence is found to support a complaint.

By contrast, violations were found in the vast majority of the most serious complaints. Those cases will continue to require board oversight, as will low-level complaints in which staff members decide there is enough evidence to pursue potential discipline.

Members of the 18-person medical board, all volunteers appointed by the governor, until now have had some involvement in all complaints brought to the panel. Much of the responsibility has fallen on the board president.

Besides doctors, the board oversees health professionals including chiropractors, physician assistants, respiratory therapists and licensed athletic trainers. It is one of 14 boards under the state Department of Health Professions; the other boards monitor professions ranging from dentistry to funeral directing.

Under Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s “Virginia Performs” initiative, all of the boards are being asked to resolve 90 percent of their complaints related to patient care within 250 days. So far this year, the boards have met that goal about 40 percent of the time.

The Department of Health Professions gets calls from people asking why the process takes so long, said Sandra Whitley Ryals, the department’s director.

“So there are complaints upon complaints about that,” she said.

Miss Ryals asked the medical board members to look at areas in which their decisions were a rubber stamp of staff recommendations and added unnecessary time to the process.

Under the new system, the board’s executive director, Dr. William Harp, will have the power to close the less serious cases in which investigators have concluded no violation occurred. But all complaints will still be investigated, Dr. Harp said.

“It’s going to be a careful process,” he said.