Just weeks after the California Senate refused to advance a bill requiring doctors to notify their patients that they were on probation for -- among other things -- sexual abuse of patients, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has published a stunning investigation exposing just how easy it is for these physicians to continue practicing.
The series is national in scope. Reporters examined "documents that described disturbing acts of physician sexual abuse in every state. Rapes by OB/GYNs, seductions by psychiatrists, fondling by anesthesiologists and ophthalmologists, and molestations by pediatricians and radiologists."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters identified 3,100 doctors who were disciplined after being accused of sexual misconduct, and more than 2,000 of them continued to practice. But those cases may be only a fraction of the actual numbers, since many violations "never came to the attention of state regulators."
The individual examples they cite are downright chilling, including this doctor from Granite Bay, east of Sacramento:
In California, a patient was leaving an appointment with Dr. Mandeep Behniwal, a psychiatrist, when the doctor put his hand down her blouse, grabbed her breast out of her bra and placed his mouth on it. He then exposed himself and ejaculated on her hand.
Behniwal told the Journal-Constitution the patient initiated the sexual contact. "For half a minute, I lost my judgment," Behniwal said.
If you were a patient of Behniwal's and wanted to know more about him, you would need to look him up on the Medical Board of California website, where you would see that his license is "Renewed and Current" but "Secondary Status" indicates "Limits On Practice," "Probation" and "Misdemeanor Conviction."
You need to scroll down within the site and click elsewhere to find that he is barred from seeing female patients during his probation. Nowhere could I find the documents explaining what he actually did, even though state law requires that documents related to a misdemeanor conviction be posted to the internet.
Meanwhile, if you didn't know that the Medical Board of California had this look-up tool, you would be in the dark.
That's the consumer blind spot that state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, sought to illuminate with Senate Bill 1033. The bill would have required that doctors notify their patients if they were on probation for serious infractions -- not only sexual misconduct, but also gross negligence, substance abuse or a felony conviction related to patient care. It's just a tiny fraction of California doctors who are on probation for these offenses -- about 500 out of 137,000 licensed physicians in 2015.
At least some of the senators who voted against the bill were swayed by a lobbying campaign suggesting that these were unproved allegations, which Hill promptly rebutted.
"That is totally false, totally inaccurate," Hill told me. "There's due process after extensive investigation that requires the attorney general of California, based on clear and convincing evidence, to charge these doctors with a violation of the Medical Practices Act and the California Criminal Code."
The California Medical Association has opposed such notification efforts, saying it would "put a burden on the physician-patient relationship."
Hill says the notification is important, because 30 percent of these physicians on probation will re-offend. He said he will reintroduce the legislation. "No question," he said, "as soon as allowed. The public has a right to know this information because their life may depend on it."
Learn more about this issue by reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's investigation.