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Staff, Budget Cuts Hamper Regulatory Boards

August 15, 2004|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

Staffing and budget cutbacks in recent years have hamstrung many California regulatory boards charged with protecting the public from incompetent and unscrupulous professionals, interviews and documents show:

* The Medical Board no longer sends investigators into poor neighborhoods to catch doctors practicing without a license, even though that program sent 52 cases for prosecution during its first four years. The board has also all but eliminated its efforts to monitor Internet drug sales to find those who dispense medication without examining the patient. In violation of its guidelines, 46% of the complaints the board pursues take longer than half a year to investigate.

* The Dental Board's inquiries take more than eight months on average, with 31% dragging on for more than a year -- twice as long as board guidelines recommend. Some disciplinary actions take up to three years to conclude. In February, an independent monitor appointed by the state called the delays "unacceptably long."

* The Board of Accountancy lacks the staff to fully scrutinize lawsuit settlements and other information that accountants have been required to report since the Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies.

* The Department of Consumer Affairs, which investigates cases on behalf of 26 professional boards, has seen its number of sworn investigators reduced from 74 to 55 over the last seven years. During that time the number of cases it investigated has dropped in half.

Many of these boards, which operate on licensing fees, have had the money to increase staffing, but have been prevented by a three-year hiring freeze. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ended the freeze this year.

The board's operations have been further hampered by $211.5 million that then-Gov. Gray Davis and lawmakers borrowed. Only $20.2 million has been paid back so far.

Mike Gomez, the enforcement chief for the Department of Consumer Affairs, said his investigators focus on cases that involve irreparable physical or mental harm.

He said complaints of people practicing without licenses, as well as other smaller allegations, "take a back seat."

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