Doctors and nurses unions fight disclosure. What they don’t want you to know

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, pledging allegiance during a Senate session, wants to toughen disclosure laws for problem doctors and nurses.
Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, pledging allegiance during a Senate session, wants to toughen disclosure laws for problem doctors and nurses. hamezcua@sacbee.com

In the vast majority of instances, Californians can trust their health to their doctors and nurses. Not so the organizations that represent doctors and nurses – or the Assembly Business and Professions Committee, which appears to need a backbone transplant.

That’s the lesson Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is learning as he pushes two bills that would allow the boards that license and regulate doctors and nurses to continue operating beyond the end of the year.

The boards, flawed though they are, should continue to exist. That’s not the issue. Hill is trying to extend the lives of the boards while imposing ever-so-mild disclosure requirements giving patients some protection against problem doctors and nurses.

Unions representing registered nurses and the California Medical Association, which represents physicians, used their clout to snuff the reporting requirements.

Doctors and nurses unions spend millions on politics, provide workers during campaign season, and appear in ads vouching for politicians who do their bidding. They are lifesavers to any politician. So when their lobbyists make a request, legislators listen.

Of the 137,000 doctors licensed to practice in California, an average of 124 are placed on probation each year. Under Hill’s Senate Bill 798, a third of the problem doctors, perhaps 40, would have to disclose to patients that they’re on probation.

These 40 have been examined by board investigators and deemed to have committed sexual misconduct, abused drugs or alcohol, repeatedly violated probation, or committed crimes involving the practice of medicine, all information patients should know.

But after a lobbyist for the medical association testified against the reporting requirement in a hearing last month, the Assembly Business and Professions Committee led by Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, sought to water down the reporting requirement. Hill responded by telling the committee: “I will not accept the amendments. I am not asking for an aye vote.” The bill died.

Low then asked Hill to present his SB 799. Seeing that the committee was prepared to gut it, Hill took the unusual step of refusing to bring it up, and left the hearing. SB 799 would have required that in certain circumstances employers such as hospitals inform the Board of Registered Nursing when registered nurses are fired, suspended or resign under pressure.

The provision would have applied if nurses impaired patient safety by using controlled substances, sold or possessed drugs, abused patients or committed sexual misconduct. Clearly, it would affect only a fraction of California’s 419,000 registered nurses.

The California Nurses Association, which represents registered nurses, has been the most prominent supporter of universal health care legislation, insisting in an especially vociferous campaign that a single-payer system is the only way to ensure that patients get the care they need.

And yet the union opposed SB 799, arguing it would “allow employers to go after nurses who are trying to protect their patients – thus harming patient care.” In reality, the nurses union did what unions do: It protected members, though that could permit troubled nurses to move from one employer to another after being fired or forced to resign.

Hill will try to revive his legislation when the Legislature returns from its summer break on Monday. Although there is no cure for a lack of guts, we do hope some lawmakers used the recess to build up some immunity to special-interest clout.