A billboard for the Lap Band marketing campaign.
The Medical Board of California has largely failed to implement key provisions of a law intended, in part, to provide consumers with better information about physician-owned, outpatient surgery centers that the agency is responsible for regulating, KPCC has found.
Senate Bill 100 requires the Medical Board of California to “obtain and maintain” a list of accredited outpatient settings, including the names of all doctor-owners and their medical license numbers. The board must post that information on its website, which must also note whether a facility has had its accreditation suspended or revoked.
But the medical board has yet to fully implement those provisions, which became law on Jan, 1, 2012.
A KPCC survey of the consumer website instead found a poorly-organized website that’s not only hard to locate on the medical board’s site, but that contains a jumble of mostly incomplete records that provide little value to the public.
A state official acknowledged the website is incomplete and problematic and said they are working on improving it.
KPCC reviewed 100 surgery centers listed on the site; only 14 included the name of a doctor-owner, and only five provided the doctor-owner medical license number as required by California Health and Safety Code Section 1248.2 (b). Also missing from most of the records listed was information on whether a surgery center had its accreditation suspended or revoked.
Consumers Union also reviewed the listing of surgery centers on the medical board's website, and got similar results.
"Of the first 25 that came up, 18 of them did not have the name of the doctor who owned it, which is a pretty critical piece of information for consumers and for any kind of accountability," said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Union’s Safe Patient Project, a national campaign that for the past year has focused on oversight of California’s physician-owned surgery centers.
“This is an absolute failure to comply,” said Los Angeles consumer attorney Kathryn Trepinski, who testified in Sacramento last year on behalf of SB100.
Trepinski represents Betty Brown of Torrance, whose sister died in December 2010, three days after undergoing lap-band weight-loss surgery at a physician-owned surgery center in Beverly Hills owned by brothers Michael and Julian Omidi. The Omidis were behind the once-popular 1-800-GET-THIN campaign. Brown has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Omidis.
Trepinski said she was disturbed to find the website listing for the clinic did not mention the Omidis or any other owners. Without such information, she says, consumers checking out the center may be hard-pressed to learn that the medical board revoked Julian Omidi's license to practice in 2007 and suspended Michael’s Omidi's license in 2008, for three years.
“People need to know the identities of physicians who own and run these centers so they can check their disciplinary records and their backgrounds,” she said. “This is a key part of patient safety and it’s important public health information.”
State Senator Curran Price (D-Los Angeles) is author of SB100, which he told KPCC he wrote in response to “a number of deaths that have occurred at these centers.”
Five patients died after having lap-band weight loss surgery at the Southern California clinics associated with the 1-800-GET-THIN marketing campaign and brothers Julian and Michael Omidi.
The Omidi brothers and their surgery centers are the target of numerous local, state and federal fraud and criminal investigations. There are also at least two insurance company fraud investigations, two whistleblower civil lawsuits and several wrongful death actions.
In an interview with KPCC, Medical Board of California Executive Director Linda Whitney acknowledged the website is incomplete and problematic.
“It’s not the most consumer-friendly, I do admit that,” said Whitney, who noted that the agency is currently carrying out an agency-wide overhaul of its computer system. “So, unfortunately, it has not been the highest priority to refine that website.”
“In the coming year we hope to make it much more consumer friendly,” she said.
Whitney said the website doesn't have a complete list of surgery centers because her board told accrediting agencies that they don't have to provide the data on a particular facility until its accreditation comes up for renewal. The agencies hadn't collected owner information before, so this approach was designed to give them time to figure out best how to get it, she said.
But because surgery centers' accreditation comes up for renewal only once every three years, some of the information won't get to the medical board– or consumers – until 2015.
When KPCC informed Senator Price about the website's problems, he expressed dismay.
"We think the Board should be a lot more aggressive in gathering this information, and so I want to find out exactly what the lag is," he said. "The intent was...this information would be made available as soon as possible...not to wait for three years."
While most consumer advocates acknowledge that doctor-owned outpatient surgery centers often offer better accessibility to surgical procedures, cleaner environments and better prices than hospital-based settings, Consumers Union's McGiffert and others fear the medical board's incomplete website reflects a lackadaisical attitude toward surgery center oversight.
“What we’re seeing now are some pretty major procedures being done in these facilities – knee replacements, a lot of cosmetic surgeries, really invasive procedures,” McGiffert said. “The consuming public believes someone in the state is overseeing these caregivers and these facilities to make sure they’re safe for consumers and we don’t think the (oversight) infrastructure is solidly in place in California today.”
Senator Price’s office says it will press the Medical Board to take immediate action to address the deficiencies on its website and to improve its oversight of surgery centers.