Wichita — It was a year ago that the public outcry over a Kansas doctor linked to 59 overdose deaths focused attention to the state medical board’s handling of cases. The head of the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts and its general counsel announced their resignations, and lawmakers demanded change.
A year after the resignations, some of the board’s most scathing critics appear mesmerized with its turnabout: the number of board actions on complaints has doubled, the open-case backlog has been slashed, and an expedited suspension process has been implemented to deal with immediate public threats.
Those changes came with increased enforcement powers and a bigger budget from the Legislature. That allowed the board to add seven new staff positions, including four attorneys, one investigator, one legal assistant and a public information officer.
Criticism of the medical board was high last year after the federal indictment of Dr. Stephen Schneider, whom prosecutors contend operated a Haysville “pill mill” linked to 59 drug overdose deaths. He has proclaimed his innocence and has yet to be tried.
Schneider’s medical license was not suspended until January 2008, a month after a federal grand jury returned a 34-count indictment alleging he unlawfully prescribed painkillers and overbilled for services.
With the KSBHA under attack over its handling of the Schneider case, abortion opponents seized on that opening to ramp up the pressure — contending the board also was not properly regulating abortion providers. Lawmakers pressed for then-Executive Director Larry Buening to be fired. Buening soon announced his resignation, and he left in July.
“There has been a change in administration and new ideas have gone into this agency,” said Jack Confer, the board’s new executive director.
Last year, the medical board took 98 actions on complaints against medical providers in 2008, compared with 47 in 2007. It pulled the medical licenses of 20 Kansas health care providers, and restricted the licenses of nine others. That compares with 11 licenses revoked and 4 restricted in 2007. It also took 37 other prejudicial actions (such as fines) in 2008, compared to 21 such actions the year earlier.
After dozens of drug overdose deaths in the Schneider case, the medical board has appeared in recent months to pay closer attention to complaints dealing with prescription practices.
But perhaps no single action has attracted more public attention than the one filed in December against Wichita abortion provider George Tiller.
The disciplinary petition against him was made public in March — shortly after a jury acquitted Tiller of having an illegal financial relationship with the doctor who provided the second opinions required under Kansas law for late-term abortions. The board’s petition closely mirrors those misdemeanor charges.
Several more complaints against Tiller, most filed by Operation Rescue, are still being investigated, according to recent confirmation letters sent by the board to the anti-abortion group.
“You have new, fresh faces on the Kansas Board of Healing Arts that lack the previous administration’s cronyism,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue.
But Confer said the action against Tiller doesn’t represent a political stance by the board.
“This board is very concerned with upholding the statutes the Legislature has given us — the ancillary issues are not something that should or could affect decisions here,” he said.