By JACK WEATHERLY
A committee of the Mississippi Board of Medical Licensure talked briefly on Wednesday about possible legislation addressing sexual abuse of patients by physicians.
The Rules and Regulations Committee took up the matter at the end of the three-hour meeting.
It had been referred unanimously to the committee by the full board on Monday.
Major Gen. (ret.) Erik Hearon said at the Wednesday hearing that he felt the matter should be a priority.
Dr. William Mayo, chairman of the committee, told Hearon that he has been working on the matter, communicating with groups, such as the American Medical Association, about it.
“So I don’t feel like we’re ignoring it. I feel like the process has begun.”
Board Chairman Dr. Charles Miles said that he invited Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood to speak to the board.
The board’s next regular meeting will be on Jan. 12.
That comes the day after filing deadline for general bills in the Legislature. And while the board cannot file directly it could support one and offer guidance, Miles said.
The House allows pre-filing of bills up to the first day of the legislative session, which is Jan. 3.
The Rules and Regulations Committee is to continue its session at 8 a.m. on Jan. 12 to finish revision of rules and regulations, on which it spent three hours on Wednesday, making its way through most of the 135-page document, according to Hall.
But the one-hour meeting may not be enough time for reaching a conclusion on what to do about sexual abuse, Mayo said.
An article published Nov. 28 by the Mississippi Business Journal brought the matter to light.
In it, Dr. John Hall, executive director of the board, said he has been working with lawmakers to develop a bill to deal with the matter.
“I’m hoping to add this to the criminal code rather than the medical practice act,” Hall said in the article. “As a felony penalty [it] would include permanent ineligibility for [Mississippi] medical licensure (something [the licensure board] could not do by current medical practice act or regulations), as well as possibly jail/prison time and perhaps some form of restitution.”
Hall, who also has a law degree, argues that even “consent” by a patient is “impossible,” because of what he calls an “insurmountable power barrier.”
A few days after the MBJ article was published, Hall asked Miles to call a special board meeting for guidance on the matter.
It was held Monday, Dec. 5, and the board unanimously sent the issue to the Rules and Regulations Committee.
The MBJ article also included the findings of a year-long effort by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that ranked Mississippi 51st among states and the District of Columbia in patient protection from abusive physicians.
Dr. S. Randall Easterling has been critical of the series of articles by the Atlanta newspaper.
Hall said in an interview Thursday that he has been “waist-deep” in the issue for a decade, and so his effort in working with legislators was not at all influenced by the newspaper’s reports.
Easterling said at the committee meeting on Wednesday that “we’re in a different era,” where the emphasis is on punishing physicians with an impairment, whether sexual or substance abuse.
At one point in the past, the Mississippi board was ranked tops because of it punitive emphasis, Easterling said.
Now it’s being downgraded because of its emphasis on saving physicians’ careers, Easterling noted.
He cited a five-year, 86 percent success rate for rehabilitating troubled physicians in Mississippi.
Miles said he stays in contact almost daily with Hall and the board listens to him. Miles referred to Hall, whom he described as “our liaison” with the Legislature.
“We don’t want to look like we have a knee-jerk reaction to an article” by the Journal-Constitution.
“We would like to have a controlled, measured response that comes up with something good,” Miles said.
“We’re working at it. And we’re certainly not trying to protect folks doing the wrong thing by any means.”
Miles acknowledged the volatile nature of the issue.
“If one group of people says you’re on a witch hunt and another group of people says you’re trying to sweep all of this under the rug, you must be doing something right.”
The Journal-Constitution found that “only 11 states [not including Mississippi] have a law requiring medical authorities to report to police or prosecutors when they suspect a sexual crime has been committed against an adult.”
Mississippi does not have a law that mandates that a physician suspected of sexual misconduct involving an adult be reported to prosecutorial or police authoriites. “Vulnerable” adults and minors are an exception.
Miles said he has been on the board seven years and he says there have been three such cases that have been prosecuted, and he believes all three physicians are incarcerated or will be.
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