ABC2 News investigation reveals huge lags in doctor discipline

BALTIMORE - You trust them with your life.  And they take an oath to protect it, swearing to do no harm.  But what about the doctors who break that promise? 

Maryland Health Secretary Doctor Joshua Sharfstein says, "The vast majority of doctors in Maryland don't have any disciplinary problems."  Yet among the more than 18,000 practicing Maryland doctors, there are a handful that do have problems.

Records show there's a small minority who've been forced by the Maryland Board of Physicians to take off the white coat after abusing booze and illegal drugs or overprescribing dangerous, addictive pills.  Some molested patients and others allegedly played a role in deaths. 

With findings so serious, you'd expect swift justice.  Maryland Delegate Wade Kach does.  He says, "It seems to me that the Board of Physicians, with their resources, should be able to in and weed the bad apples out."  But we've discovered some cases rotting in limbo, taking months or even years to resolve. 

Bryan Hannan waited years for closure after his mother died after plastic surgery.  He says, "Frankly, after all that we've been through.  I thought it was a lost cause."

Hannan's mother, Janet, wanted to look good for the wedding of her youngest son, Jason, so she had a combination of procedures in 2005.  The surgery lasted more than 10 hours and required an overnight stay.  Two days after returning home to Perry Hall she passed away.  Janet's husband, Mike, says, "My sons were robbed of a mother, way before her time."

Over the years this family's sadness turned to anger.  They discovered Janet's surgeon, Doctor Oscar Ramirez, had no hospital privileges and his Timonium clinic wasn't supposed to handle operations lasting longer than six hours or keep patients overnight. 

The Hannans also learned that five months before Janet's death, another Ramirez patient died after a 12-hour surgery.  Mike Hannan says, "Had appropriate action been taken then, my sons would still have their mother."

No action was taken in 2005 or in 2006, after the Board was officially notified about Janet's death and potential issues with her surgeon once her family filed a lawsuit.  Even then no action was taken. 

Five more years passed before the Board revoked Ramirez's medical license for failing to meet the standards of quality medical care in Janet's case as well as a case involving another male patient.  Mike Hannan says, "There's something wrong with the system when people die and it takes five years to look at something and move to action."

But the delay in the Ramirez case isn't isolated.  ABC2 News Investigators examined hundreds of pages of disciplinary records for 49 doctors slapped with serious action since December 2010, things like suspensions or revocations.  In some cases, it took as long as seven years for formal action to be taken.

In more than a third of the cases, the Board of Physicians took at least two years to initially suspend or revoke a doctor's license.  In a phone interview, Board Chairman Dr. Paul Elder admits, "There are cases where the board has legitimately dropped the ball."  That's alarming to Delegate Kach.  He says, "We still have people in Maryland that are at risk because of this."

Following our phone interview, Elder also sat down with ABC2 for an on-camera interview to answer questions about the delays we uncovered.  He says, "The Board has limited resources and we have to prioritize and if we find a case that warrants immediate, urgent action, then we prioritize that and go forward."  But while the cases are reviewed, these doctors are still treating patients, even when the allegations are disturbing.

Take Doctor Donald Roane.  Records show in 2004, a patient told the board he was trading oral sex for medication.  Roane's license was suspended six years later and later revoked for sexual misconduct with that woman and a teenage patient.

Doctor Mark Geier is another example.  His first complaint was filed more than four years ago.  But it wasn't until last year the board suspended his license for "experimental treatment of autistic children".  Geier referred to those treatments as "chemical castration" and has since been ordered to cease and desist practicing medicine.

What's even more alarming is that doctors who lose their licenses can, in some cases, pack up and move to another state.  Catherine Dower, with the Center for Health Professions at the University of California San Francisco, says, "They're legally able to continue to practice until the second state takes action against their license."

Remember Janet Hannan's doctor, Oscar Ramirez?  He's now practicing plastic surgery in Florida, months after his Maryland license was revoked.  We sent in our hidden camera to see if he'd be upfront about his past and after our visit we caught up with Ramirez in the parking lot.

We asked Ramirez if he considered his continued practice a risk to the public.  He said, "I practice the highest standard of care.  My surgery center was state

of the art.  There was no cause/effect between the surgeries I performed on those patients and the deaths of those patients."

Ramirez is appealing his Maryland revocation and is fighting Florida's Board of Medicine, which made a move to potentially pull his license in November, four months after Maryland's decision.

That's an example of yet another delay in the process that concerns Doctor Sidney Wolfe, Director of the Health Research Group at Public Citizen.  He says, "A lag in discipline, particularly over what are serious offenses means jeopardy to the health of patients who are going to that doctor."

Bryan Hannan has his own concerns about the kind of delay his family has experienced.  He says, "I don't think you can roll the dice with peoples' lives."  By taking so much time, Bryan thinks the board is gambling with your life.

He's fighting in his mother's honor, hoping to make the odds better for you, "Every time I say enough's enough, I can't take it anymore, I look at her picture and I can't quit. I can't."

We've repeatedly contacted the Board of Physicians about our investigation and our findings, dating back to December 28 th.  After repeatedly asking for comment, the board made Chairman Elder available for an on-camera interview Wednesday.  He says despite issues pointed out by our investigation and an audit done by the state, the board has done a good job adjudicating cases.  He says the board has a very high prosecutorial success rate, "There's something noteworthy about the quality of our work product when we're able to identify somebody who really need to be sanctioned."  We'll have his complete response Friday night on ABC2 News at 11 in Part 3 of our Bad Medicine investigation.

We were unable to locate Dr. Donald Roane to comment about the allegations against him, but did leave messages for the attorney who represented him.  Those calls were not returned. A public relations company representing Dr. Mark Geier sent us this statement, "The strict confidentiality restrictions demanded by the state Board of Physicians prevents me from discussing the charges, other than to say that we are vigorously contesting them."

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