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The Seattle Times License to Harm


Tuesday, April 25, 2006 - Page updated at 09:04 AM


Series prompts state to make major reforms

Seattle Times staff reporter

The state Department of Health keeps disciplinary records about health-care professionals in a 1970s-era computer cobbled from scavenged hardware and myriad software patches.

So it's not surprising that the agency cites this relic as a reason for not analyzing the problem of sexual misconduct in the 57 professions it regulates.

What is surprising: The agency still puts precise statistics about health-care discipline in its biennial report to the Washington Legislature.

Those numbers, in many cases, are wrong — "best guesses," as Bonnie King, a Health Department director, admitted after The Times' analysis showed the department had significantly undercounted sexual-misconduct complaints.

That shouldn't happen again, the agency insists. The department will have a new $4.2 million mainframe computer in 2007 that will allow it to track and analyze the problem. Department of Health Secretary Mary Selecky says replacing the "hopelessly outdated" computer is just one improvement. Her agency is putting other reforms in place, several the result of The Times' investigation.

For the first time, department investigators will investigate each sexual-misconduct complaint. Until recently, the state dismissed about one-third of these complaints without a single inquiry, nearly 500 since 1995.

In another marked change, the Health Department, when warranted, is more rapidly suspending the licenses of practitioners accused of sexual misconduct, The department filed eight such suspensions last month. In all of 2005, it issued only seven.

Also, after legal challenges by The Times, Selecky has halted her agency's practice of removing or sealing embarrassing information from open records about practitioners and their misconduct, shielding them from public scrutiny.

The system's most vexing problem, Selecky says, is the inconsistent punishment handed down by her agency and the state's 16 professional boards and commissions.

The governor appoints board members; they work closely with the Health Department but do not answer to Selecky. They and the department hand out wildly varying punishments: pulling the license of a counselor while the same misconduct by a dentist gets him a "practice restriction" requiring a chaperone in the room when he treats females.

Selecky is trying to get the boards to adopt uniform sanctions.

"You've opened our eyes to a lot of issues," Selecky said. "We take these issues very seriously. There is nobody here who doesn't want to do everything possible to protect patients."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company



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