The Failures Of State Medical Boards: How Dangerous Doctors Keep Their Licenses

Despite their actions resulting in life-altering injuries and even death, some physicians are able to cling onto their medical licenses.

By Ethan Harfenist
Medical Supplies

Despite their actions resulting in life-altering injuries and even death, physicians such as Michael Belfiore and Larry Mitchell Isaacs have managed to cling onto their medical licenses.

After Michael Jackson died in June 2009 from cardiac arrest, the King of Pop’s personal physician, Conrad Murray, immediately came under fire. Jackson’s cause of death was officially determined to have stemmed from an overdose of the powerful sedative Propofol, which Murray prescribed him. He also was determined to have a cocktail of other strong sedatives, including lorazepam and midazolam, in his system.

By November 2011, Murray was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, resulting in four years behind bars, the revocation of his Texas medical license and the suspension of his licenses in California and Nevada.

Given the pharmaceutical-fueled nature of Jackson’s death, as well as the huge amount of publicity surrounding it, Murray was bound to suffer consequences over the tragic incident. But, across the United States, many physicians accused of and responsible for gross malpractice, including deaths, somehow manage to hang onto their medical licenses and continue to practice despite their tarnished past.

Take Long Island’s Dr. Michael Belfiore, who was in May 2018 convicted of causing the overdose deaths of two patients as well as illegally distributing the powerful painkiller oxycodone, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York.

In the midst of the U.S.’s ongoing opioid crisis — according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2017, 47,600 Americans died from opioid overdoses, more than 35 percent of those from prescription opioids alone — Belfiore dispensed painkillers with abandon.

Two illegal prescriptions he doled out for over a hundred 30-miligram oxycodone pills resulted in the 2013 overdose deaths of Edward Martin, 42 and John Ubaghs, 32, according to the U.S. Attorney’s office.

“Dr. Belfiore was acting not as a healer, but as a drug dealer with a prescription pad,” United States Attorney Richard Donoghue said in a press statement at the time of the conviction. “The defendant lined his pockets with cash from patients in exchange for illegally prescribing oxycodone, a particularly dangerous and addictive drug, with lethal results.”

Belfiore faces a minimum of 20 years in prison with the possibility of life, according to the Long Island Herald newspaper.

While Dr. Belfiore is not currently registered to practice medicine in New York and remains in federal custody prior to his sentencing, he still is technically licensed in the state, New York State Department of Health Public Information Officer Jill Montag told Oxygen.com on Friday.

Montag added that Belfiore "has been subject to an interim order of conditions precluding the ordering, prescribing, administering and/or dispensing of controlled substances" until federal actions have been concluded.

Belfiore's attorney Bruce Barket did not respond to requests for comment about the status of his client's case or any other impacts the conviction has had on his ability to practice medicine in New York State.

But Belfiore is far from alone in demonstrating doctors’ abilities to hang onto to their licenses despite misconduct. In fact, sometimes all it takes is packing one’s bags and moving to another state to keep practicing medicine, despite giving up or being stripped of a license elsewhere.

Opioids

Dr. Larry Mitchell Isaacs surrendered his medical license in three different states following allegations of misconduct. According to MedPage Today, Isaacs first gave up his license in Louisiana, after he removed a patient’s kidney during what was meant to be a colon surgery; then, in California, he also gave up his license after he accidentally removed a woman’s fallopian tube thinking it was her appendix, which had already been removed; he then surrendered his license in New York, after authorities were mulling disciplinary actions based on what happened in California.

But somehow, despite this laundry list of allegedly botched surgeries, Isaacs is still clinging to his life’s work and practicing at an urgent care clinic in the Oakley area of Cincinnati, Ohio, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Additionally, Isaac’s page on U.S. News and World Report lists his patient experience as “very positive.” And as far as his certifications and licensures, the page only states that his medical licenses in New York and Louisiana were “active through” 2016 and 2013, respectively — never noting the circumstances under which he gave up his license.

In addition to claiming that he “didn’t do anything wrong anywhere” —  Isaacs said there were medical justifications in each case — he said that among the reasons he gave up his licenses in Louisiana, California and New York was the cost of defending himself against the allegations against him, according to the Enquirer. He also claimed that he would have been challenging an inherently rigged system.

“I am just working as a physician and trying to live out my last years in peace,” Isaacs told the Enquirer, adding that he was no longer performing surgeries.

In February 2018, an investigation by MedPage Today and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel found that between 2011 and 2016, at least 500 doctors were disciplined by one state medical board, yet were able to hop state lines and maintain a “clean” license. That number is likely low, too — the investigation only took into account cases in which at least one agency took some sort of action against the doctor.

“It is very concerning to think a physician surrenders in one state and doesn’t surrender in another,” Dr. John Harris, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told MedPage Today. “There seems to be an inconsistency and danger.”

It’s not like there aren’t tools available: the National Practitioners Data Bank, a 30-year-old federal database, was created to make sure hospitals and state medical boards were aware of physician violations around the U.S. The issue is, however, that not only is it confidential, but, according to MedPage Today, many state medical boards simply ignore the data that is available.

Not all instances of alleged malpractice or misconduct fall through the cracks, of course. Just recently, on June 5, a doctor in Ohio was charged with murdering 25 patients between 2015 and 2018 by purposefully prescribing them lethal doses of powerful opioid painkillers, including fentanyl, The Associated Press reports.

William Husel was alleged to have ordered large doses of the fentanyl, a synthetic opioid believed to be up to 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, for patients who were receiving palliative care or were on ventilators, according to AP.

"At no time did Dr. Husel ever intend to euthanize anyone — euthanize meaning speed up death," defense attorney Richard Blake said, as quoted by AP. Husel also pleaded not guilty.

In response to the charges against him, Husel was stripped of his medical license, however.

Still, depending on how the charges shake out, what should be a career-ending incident for Husel could possibly prove to simply be a roadblock in his medical career — especially in a country where physicians with tarnished records are able to start new beginnings simply by walking into a different state.

For stories of medical malpractice turned deadly, tune in as Oxygen, the destination for high-quality crime programming, investigates the jaw-dropping cases of murderous doctors, nurses and medical professionals in the new series, “License to Kill” premiering on Sunday, June 23 at 7/6c.

Hosted by renowned plastic surgeon Dr. Terry Dubrow, the series chronicles the harrowing accounts of patients put into jeopardy by medical professionals’ insidious use of their expertise.

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