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State Slow to Discipline Physicians : Many Doctors Remain in Practice Despite Accusations


When Estella Gonzalez, 22, went in December to Her Medical Clinic, she did not know that the doctor she would see had a history of serious complaints against him.

Although the California Medical Board opened an investigation of the clinic in 1985 after the death of a young woman there, it was five years before the board filed any formal action.

By then, three more patients at the clinic on South Figueroa Street were dead as a result of what the Medical Board called Dr. Leo Kenneally's negligence or incompetence: Donna K. Heim, a 20-year-old preschool teacher from Covina; Liliana Cortez, a 22-year-old housekeeper, and Michelle Thames, an 18-year-old homecoming queen contestant at Lynwood High School.

Kenneally declined to be interviewed, but his attorney, Jay Hartz, said his client "feels he has done nothing wrong" and has fought charges against him all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He is one of 70,000 physicians that the state Medical Board is mandated to police and license. It is supposed to protect consumers from incompetent, grossly negligent, unlicensed and unethical practitioners.

But a full 60% of serious com plaints against doctors are either stayed or suspended, allowing physicians with even the most grievous histories of negligence and incompetence to remain in practice.

"This is supposed to be a consumer agency--an agency that promises to protect consumers. But the promise is empty. We cannot count on the Medical Board," said Jeannette Dreisbach, director of Women's Advocate, an underground network of health and legal professionals who help women injured by doctors, especially those who perform abortions.

"It is almost a moribund agency--and people are dying," said Robert Fellmeth of the University of San Diego's Center for Public Interest Law, a private watchdog over state licensing boards.

The case of Kenneally is far from unique.

There is Dr. Lawson Akpulonu, whose Midland Medical Center on West Washington Avenue also sees mostly women. He has pleaded guilty to medical insurance fraud. Last spring, one of Akpulonu's employees complained to the Medical Board that the doctor did not sterilize his surgical tools and used untrained people to assist in operations. But the board will not say whether Akpulonu is under investigation.

And there is Dr. Rodney Brown, a former small-town obstetrician from Northern California whose patients were so unhappy that they formed their own support group to deal with their rage and frustration. When the Medical Board tried to settle a negligence case against Brown in the death of a patient's baby, two dozen more women came forward with their own allegations.

Akpulonu and Brown also have maintained their innocence.

For years, the California Medical Board has blamed the Legislature, for failing to properly fund and staff the board, or the legal system, for stalling its best efforts to rid the state of bad doctors.

In 1989, the Legislature gave the board an extra $2.4 million to get rid of a 900-case backlog and then tightened the board's deadlines for resolving complaints.

But state consumer chief Jim Conran announced in January that some of the backlog had been erased by the wholesale shredding of hundreds of complaints.

Many of the top board officials responsible for ordering the move have already been suspended or removed from their posts. In December, the board's controversial director, Kenneth Wagstaff, was replaced with Dixon Arnett, a former private health consultant and aide to then-Sen. Pete Wilson.

Kenneally's 2-year-old case is tentatively set for a hearing by the Medical Board this spring. Meanwhile, his three clinic waiting rooms at 2700 S. Figueroa St. are full and his practice is thriving.

As early as 1976, the Medical Board had suspended Kenneally's medical license after he was convicted of a federal narcotics violation. But the suspension later was stayed, and Kenneally was placed on probation for two years.

By 1979, Kenneally was off probation but was jailed after being convicted of Medi-Cal theft. Again, the Medical Board ordered his license revoked but once more stayed the order, instead giving him three years of probation.

When the board finally filed its formal accusation against Kenneally in 1990, it was to charge him with incompetence in Heim's death, as well as negligence in the deaths of Cortez and Thames and in the permanent injury of three other patients. All had gone to the clinic for abortions.

Like Heim, Cortez and Thames, Estella Gonzalez went to Kenneally's clinic for a 10-minute abortion. She was carrying $250 in cash. It was Dec. 19. According to the complaint filed on her behalf on Christmas Eve, clinic personnel failed to give her a full examination, or to take a detailed medical history or vital signs. When the procedure was finished, according to Gonzalez, Kenneally inserted two tampons and gave her a sanitary pad. After 15 minutes "recovering" in a chair, she says, she was shown the door.

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