A doctor who practices in Anderson lost his license after an arrest for child molestation. A Simpsonville pain management physician had his license suspended, then conditionally restored this summer after his arrest for unlawfully signing opioid prescriptions. A Veterans Affairs physician had his license temporarily suspended in April, just two weeks after a jury found him guilty of killing his ex-wife.
However, you would never know the reason for each punishment by relying solely on the orders issued by South Carolina regulators. Instead, South Carolina Radio Network pieced together what happened from arrest reports in each case.
A healthcare watchdog says South Carolina’s medical misconduct investigations and results are designed to protect doctors’ confidentiality but can put patients’ lives at risk.
“The danger of secrecy is that the same things keep happening over and over again,” Mothers Against Medical Error founder Helen Haskell said. “And we have serial offenders.”
The state Board of Medical Examiners is a licensing board which falls under the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (LLR). The agency handles any complaints filed against physicians in South Carolina. Some of the board’s members are chosen by the governor or legislative leaders, while others are elected by South Carolina physicians in each of the state’s seven congressional districts.
LLR staff will investigate the accusations and determine if a potential violation of the Medical Practices Act occurred. If a complaint is deemed reasonable, the investigator will then prepare a report for the Investigative Review Committee. The committee then makes a recommendation to the full board on whether a complaint should be dismissed, its violator cautioned or if the full board should consider sanctions against the doctor involved.
If the full board does become involved, then the physician can either agree to settle the complaint under a consent agreement or challenge the findings in a hearing. During the hearing, the state makes its case and the doctor has a chance to defend his or herself. The patient who filed the complaint does not testify. The board then makes a final decision.
“We obviously are always looking to make sure the public is safe,” said Deputy Director Dean Grigg, who oversees LLR’s various professional licensing boards. “If there’s a concern that a particular individual is not safe to continue practice while that investigation is pending, we can and often do seek temporary suspension orders.”
It is only in the case of a final order that the specific accusations against a doctor become public. Consent agreements, temporary suspensions, and revocations do not include the allegations.
Board President Jeffery Welsh referred questions on the process to LLR staff.
Grigg said federal law can sometimes limit what board members are able to include in a sanctions order. “Certainly, when you start talking about HIPPA and people’s medical records and maybe there’s mental health issues involved, our boards are required to look at those factors and determine what can be made public and what can’t,” he said.
However, the lack of specifics can also leave patients in the dark. Of the 26 actions taken against South Carolina physicians by the board in 2018, only three were final orders. The rest do not make public the reason for punishment.
Those cases include James Hanahan of Seneca and Blake Leche of Simpsonville. Both men were arrested at different times this year for fraudulent drug prescription cases. The board temporarily suspended each’s license before later restoring it with conditions (including that neither Hanahan nor Leche could prescribe controlled substances). However, neither order mentions why. South Carolina Radio Network had to track down the arrest reports independently.
Georgetown attorney Ed Bell has been involved in malpractice lawsuits and criticizes the lack of patient participation during a sanctions hearing. “If a doctor is getting sanctioned by the medical board, that’s a drastic move because they don’t do that often,” Bell said. “Why wouldn’t they put the reasons behind it?”
“I do think that when there’s a valid reason for a medical board to look into a doctor’s practice, then it ought to be something that passes the authenticity muster and be transparent,” Bell added. “And I don’t think they do that.”