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Health staff background checks lag

State lacks fingerprints for nearly a third of medical workers, so their criminal histories can't be screened.

December 30, 2008|Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber

California's failure to check the criminal backgrounds of health professionals extends well beyond nurses, encompassing tens of thousands of doctors, dentists, psychiatric technicians and therapists.

The Times reported this fall that regulators had not vetted about 195,000 of the state's registered and vocational nurses, exposing patients to caregivers with histories of violence, addiction, predatory behavior or corruption.

Prompted by those articles, the state Department of Consumer Affairs has identified 104,000 more professionals from all levels of medical care to add to that tally.

All told, the agency now estimates that close to a third of the state's 937,100 licensed healthcare workers have not been screened through fingerprint checks.

Licensing boards maintain inconsistent rules about who must be fingerprinted and when. Fingerprints are the primary tool that regulators can use to root out convictions and allow law enforcement agencies to automatically alert regulators if a licensee has ever been arrested.

Those who have not been fingerprinted include almost three-quarters of psychiatric technicians; nearly half of family therapists, social workers and dentists; and 12% of physicians.

"We depend on the state of California . . . to screen out those who are incompetent or impaired or dishonest or otherwise unqualified," said Julianne D'Angelo Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego. "If the state doesn't do that for whatever reason, we're all in trouble."

After the reports by The Times, which collaborated with the investigative news organization ProPublica, the state Department of Consumer Affairs moved quickly.

Agency Director Carrie Lopez ordered the 20 health-related boards and bureaus she oversees, including the Medical Board of California, to collect fingerprints from any licensee who had not provided them.

She also told the agencies to begin asking licensees whether they had been convicted of a crime since their last renewal. Other states' boards, including those in Arizona and Texas, already do that.

Lopez urged regulators to more quickly pursue professionals who may pose a danger to the public.

"I have and fully intend to make use of all resources to ensure that we remove threats to the public safety and well-being of Californians," Lopez said in a written statement.

The Board of Registered Nursing received expedited approval from the state Office of Administrative Law last month to collect fingerprints from the 147,000 nurses licensed before 1990. The board estimated that the new fingerprinting requirement will cost more than $4 million to implement over the first three years and $1.7 million annually thereafter.

In seeking the requirement, nursing board officials wrote that The Times' "articles packaged information in a different way and in a different light than the board had done in the past. Moreover, these articles raised the issue with respect to specific licensees with notable criminal histories that the board had never disciplined."

The Bureau of Vocational Nursing and Psychiatric Technicians plans to seek a fast-track review for proposed fingerprint regulations. It also has sought to discipline some of those mentioned in The Times' articles, including Cynthia Knott, convicted in 2007 for selling drugs that had been stolen from her job at the Fresno County Jail to an undercover investigator.

The consumer affairs department, which oversees all licensed professionals in the state, said it is focusing on healthcare first but intends to expand fingerprinting to other boards as well, including those that govern auto repair and contractors.

Fingerprinting requirements originally were adopted because boards believed that some crimes could reflect poorly on a licensee's character, competence or ability to safely perform the job.

But gathering missing fingerprints has not been a priority.

The Dental Bureau of California, for example, started requiring fingerprints in 1986 but has almost none on file for any dentist licensed before then -- some 16,000 people, said Cathleen Poncabare, the board's executive officer.

The board knows about some criminal convictions through complaints or direct contact with law enforcement, but "without the fingerprints, we don't know" what else may be out there, she said.

The new background checks will probably flag such cases as that of Kiyoshi Fukuda, a dentist from Santa Rosa.

Licensed in 1969, he has a clear record, according to the bureau's website. Yet reporters found that he is a registered sex offender, listed on the state's Megan's Law website.

Fukuda, 63, was convicted in 1990 of two counts of oral copulation on a child under 16.

In an interview, Fukuda said he had disclosed his conviction to the board when he renewed his license years ago and never heard anything back. He closed his private practice in January and said he recently sent a request to the dental board to cancel his license.

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