Two of every five medical professionals in Florida are licensed in another state or states, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards. The system is a mish-mash of reportage, wherein state health boards and hospital systems report disciplinary actions to large national database, called the National Practitioner’s Data Bank. The names of the sanctioned individuals though, are not available through the data base to the public, allowing suspended doctors to get a license in another state. The system is accessible to hospitals and other qualified health care operations.
The lengthy delay in the hearing process, combined with a seriously flawed national system for reporting medical malfeasance, allows physicians like cardiologist Rick Szumlas to continue to hold a license in Florida — in good standing — while being suspended in Texas after complaining to police that “aliens were invading his head.”
His defense claimed his mental troubles were a thing of the past. A witness said it was a brief episode. The Texas board issued an order in June 2011, agreeing to allow Szumlas to treat patients in a “group or institutional setting” while receiving psychiatric treatment.
His license in Florida notes that Szumlas is “not practicing in Florida,” although his record here has no public complaints and his license status is “clear/active.” Meanwhile, his license in Illinois reflects the action in Texas.
“Outside of the state, it goes on a case by case basis,” said Jay Wolfson, director of the Florida Health Information Center at the University of South Florida. “If I am a physician in Wyoming and I lose my license to practice there, that board has to post that action. And if I am practicing in Florida, I am supposed to tell them. And I have to appear before the board.”
For states to catch up with actions in another state, “it all starts with that original state,” said Jarrett Schneider, a spokesman for the Texas Medical Board. He said state health officials review news accounts as much as anything else in looking for possible license troubles. “We don’t just rely on the National Practitioner’s Data Bank.”
He added that a license revocation in one state may take a while to get into the hands of another, especially when states rely on the sanctioned party to divulge. “There is a timing element here, in which an individual might be caught in a situation in one state and word hasn’t gotten back to the other,” Schneider said.
Or sometimes a sanction in one state simply isn’t caught by another, as in the case of Leesburg physician James Lee Allen, who was forced to surrender his license in Florida in 2010, more than four years after voluntarily surrendering his Wyoming license after pleading guilty to felony child pornography charges. Allen held licenses in three other states, as well. Nevada revoked his license in 2007. Louisiana records show Allen’s license there was expired before his arrest. The reason for the revocation in Florida was a failure to inform the board of the Wyoming action four years before. Nine months after Florida removed his license, Allen unsuccessfully petitioned to get his medical license back in Wyoming.
While “nearly all physicians are OK, they are human,” noted Wolfson, the health information center director. Complaints against doctors often come from disgruntled family members or former patients looking for some solace. Still, there are misdeeds and failing among the ranks that need to be policed. Florida’s lengthy disciplinary delay and state-funded defense of the accused is the result of a strong political presence of the medical profession.
“While there are some lobbying interests for the public, they aren’t as well funded or as targeted as those for physicians. The [American Medical Association] has a laser like ability to focus on legislators and can kill things quickly.”
Zimmer, the Miami Beach psychiatrist busted for prostitution and suspended for drug use, declined to discuss his troubles. But he did compliment the state’s Medical Board that had suspended his license.
“If you attend a couple of Medical Board meetings, you will find a sincere and devoted group of professionals from various domains, who agonize over the parameters of each and every case, prior to reaching a broad range of deeply considered conclusions, consequences and judgments,” Zimmer wrote. “To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, this system may be terrible, but it’s the best we’ve developed, so far.”
Zimmer ended his email by noting that “it is not how many skeletons we have in our closets, it is how we make them dance for us that counts.”