Texas Physician Health Program - When It Is Not Appropriate

In 2010, the Texas Legislature created the Texas Physician Health Program (PHP), effectively shifting the oversight of licensed Texas physicians with substance abuse disorders and mental illness from the Texas Medical Board to a program uniquely tailored to monitor those issues. Responsible in part for the success of this idea is the sentiment that physicians generally do not like dealing with the Medical Board, and are not keen on self-reporting substance abuse issues to the Medical Board or being candid about mental health problems. The PHP, while not entirely independent from the Medical Board (PHP is administratively linked to the TMB), was intended to provide a more attractive option for those physicians who needed the oversight and the help that PHP would provide. In the 2+ years since its creation, the PHP has largely been successful, and certainly is still preferable to the Medical Board’s investigative and disciplinary process in many instances. However, there are certain types of “substance-related” cases in which a referral to the PHP is not appropriate, and a physician would be better served to hire an experienced professional license defense attorney and take the case to the Medical Board, seeking dismissal. Simply put, a one-time arrest and conviction for DWI or Public Intoxication does not justify a long-term PHP contract aimed at facilitating recovery. 

The PHP is not typically appropriate in instances where the physician has had a one-time substance-related arrest, but no substance abuse diagnosis. However, we frequently encounter physicians who have been arrested for one-time instances of DWI or public intoxication and are subsequently offered participation in the PHP in lieu of Medical Board action. Oftentimes, the offer of PHP contract will have been given before the DWI case is even criminally adjudicated. For a physician that does not seek the proper legal guidance, that one-time DWI arrest will result in a 5-year PHP contract, where the physician is subjected to terms that likely include substance abuse treatment, Alcoholics Anonymous attendance, drug screening, and possibly practice restrictions. While a confidential PHP contract that offers that level of structure is probably appropriate for a physician with a diagnosed substance use disorder, it is not appropriate for the physician who made a highly regrettable, one-time decision to drink and drive. Additionally, it is very difficult for anyone to stay compliant with a 5-year PHP contract when there is no actual substance abuse disorder- the terms of the order start to look very arbitrary. Moreover, there will be lifelong consequences with credentialing and applications for privileges. 

The alternative to a PHP contract is the perceived threat that the physician’s case will be forwarded to the Medical Board for investigation and possible disciplinary action. Contrary to common misperceptions, that is often the preferable scenario in this instance. The Medical Board does not have the power to discipline a physician for a one-time arrest and conviction of DWI, and as long as that DWI does not lead to evidence that the physician may have a substance abuse problem, the Medical Board must dismiss the case (Tex. Occ. Code § 164.051(a)(2)). The physician will probably be investigated and invited to participate in an Informal Settlement Conference with the TMB, but an experienced administrative law attorney should be able to guide them through the process without receipt of any discipline. The professional license defense attorneys of the Leichter Law Firm have been very successful in getting these cases dismissed.

If you are a physician, physician assistant, or other licensee of the Texas Medical Board, and you have been offered a PHP participation contract in response to a one-time substance-related arrest, do not hesitate to contact the experienced administrative law attorneys of the Leichter Law Firm. Even if you have not yet been contacted by the TMB or the PHP regarding your substance-related arrest, it is advisable to contact us at 512-495-9995 for a free consultation.       

Enough is Enough: Texas Board of Nursing Pursuit of Licensees Following Criminal Acquittal

 

Recently I have represented several nurses before the Texas Board of Nursing who were being pursued by Board Staff for allegations for which they had already been acquitted by the criminal justice system. As one would expect, this quasi-double jeopardy is extremely frustrating to the nurse. Despite already having hired a criminal lawyer and clearing their name in criminal court, they must now hire a license defense attorney to do the same thing before the Board of Nursing.

 

The most recent example, involved a case where the nurse had been accused of an inappropriate touching by a ten year old girl. The girl claimed that she had awaken at a sleep over at the client’s house to discover the nurse touching her; however, there were several inconsistencies with the girl’s testimony and it later came out that she was friends with another young girl who had made the exact same allegation (down to every detail) against my client several years prior but had subsequently admitted to her mother that she had made it up.

 

At the close of the nurse’s criminal trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Moreover, Child Protective Services had conducted their own investigation into the matter and determined that nothing had occurred. Yet, despite his acquittal and the negative finding by Child Protective Services, the Texas Board of Nursing decided to pursue their own disciplinary action against my client, seeking the revocation of his nursing license.

 

Thankfully, my firm was able to enforce the expunction order which had previously been entered by the criminal court to prevent the Board from using second-hand records from that trial to prove their case. Instead, the Board of Nursing was forced to bring the girl to testify in person at a hearing at the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Based on conflicting testimony from our witnesses and several discrepancies between the girl’s original outcry and her testimony at the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge concluded that the Board of Nursing had not met their burden of proof and accordingly entered an opinion favorable to the nurse.

 

I understand that the Board has a mission to protect the public from bad nurses; nevertheless, at some point one has to think that enough is enough. A person should only have to clear their name so many times before it is reasonable for the Board to think twice about wasting state money to retry a licensee for the same conduct.

 

The underlying lesson is that simply because you received a not guilty verdict in criminal court or the District Attorney decided not to prosecute, you are not shielded from a licensure action by the Texas Board of Nursing. They frequently subject a nurse licensee to yet another legal action where they are forced to again clear their name or face severe restrictions on, or even termination, of their livelihood. If you are facing such a situation with the Texas Board of Nursing, I highly recommend that you contact a seasoned administrative attorney with experience before the Texas Board of Nursing and the State Office of Administrative Hearings as otherwise you could be risking your license.

Texas State Board of Pharmacy Overreaches Statutory Mandate

 

Texas State Board of Pharmacy Overreaches Statutory Mandate Regarding Deferred Adjudications/Community Supervision:

 

I am currently serving as the defense attorney in several cases before the Texas State Board of Pharmacy that involve clients who are presently on deferred adjudication/community supervision for drug related offenses. In all of these cases the Board has taken the position that their Rules mandate the outright revocation of the license of any pharmacist or pharmacist tech who is on community supervision or probation for a felony drug related offense regardless of the circumstances or any other factor. This is outrageous and a clear contravention of their statutory mandate.

 

All administrative licensing agencies are creatures of statute and accordingly must derive their authority to regulate from law passed by the state Legislature. The Texas Pharmacy Act sets forth the public mandate of the Texas State Board of Pharmacy in § 551.002 of the Texas Occupations Code. This Sections states that it is the purpose of the Pharmacy Act and the Pharmacy Board “to regulate in the public interest the practice of pharmacy in this state as a professional practice…” in such a way that will “promote, preserve, and protect the public health, safety, and welfare.” Tex. Occ. Code § 551.002. Try as it might, the Board must regulate and discipline pharmacists while remaining within the confines of this public mandate.

 

In defiance of § 551.002, the Board has, within the past three years, passed and frequently amended Title 22 § 281.64 of the Texas Administrative Code in such a way as to make it impossible for any pharmacist or pharmacist tech to retain their license if they are also placed on deferred adjudication. For example, under Rule 218.64 any pharmacist or pharmacist tech who has been convicted of or is currently on deferred adjudication or deferred disposition for a felony involving either 1) mere possession or 2) the manufacture, delivery, or possession with intent to deliver, fraud, or theft of drugs is automatically subject to the revocation or denial of their license. This is without regard to the individual’s culpability, rehabilitation, age at the time of offense, or current fitness to serve as a licensed pharmacist or pharmacist tech. In many situations the pharmacist is not even deemed eligible for licensure until 20 years has passed since the date of disposition.

 

This Rule is in clear conflict with the Board’s statutory mandate. That mandate requires the Board to regulate “in the public interest” and in such a way that will “promote, preserve, and protect the public health, safety, and welfare.” Tex. Occ. Code § 551.002. Licensure revocation based merely in the bare fact of being on community supervision or probation for a drug-related offense satisfies neither of these standards. This Rule takes no account of the pharmacist or pharmacist tech’s extent of involvement in the criminal offense, whether they were even aware a criminal offense was being committed, or whether their participation was minimal or expansive. No account is taken of the licensee’s subsequent rehabilitation, their youthfulness at the time of the offense, or their present and future value to the community. The only thing that matters is whether or not twenty years have passed since the date of disposition.

 

Keep in mind that under Chapter 53 of the Texas Occupations Code licensing agencies such as the Pharmacy Board are required to take into account a set of specified mitigating factors, many of which are listed above, when taking a disciplinary action against a licensee who has actually been convicted of the same offense. Arguably on this ground alone, the Pharmacy Board’s Rule 281.64 is ultra vires (A Latin phrase crucial to administrative law which translates as “beyond the powers”) and hence void.

 

The only real explanation for this outrageous policy is a desire to punish pharmacists merely for the fact that they are on criminal probation and thereby guard the public image of the Pharmacy Board. There is no rational reason for summarily revoking a pharmacist who is on deferred adjudication for a drug-related offense. This is underlined by the fact that the Board freely permits chemically dependent and impaired pharmacists to continue to practice. Almost by definition these licensees have committed acts that would be deemed, had they been prosecuted, criminal possession, prescription fraud, and any of a number of offenses under the Texas Health and Safety Code. Many of these licensees also have ongoing addiction and chemical dependency issues, a circumstance which would arguably make their continued licensure more dangerous to public health and safety.

 

Furthermore, in my practice I have served as the defense attorney for hundreds of other licensed health care professionals before the Texas Medical Board, the Texas Board of Dental Examiners, and the State Board of Veterinary Examiners. These agencies are all notable because they all regulate licensees who hold prescriptive authority. None of these agencies have a similar provision in their administrative Rules. It is unclear why these Texas Boards feel that the public health and safety is safeguarded by permitting their licensees, who are also on felony deferred adjudication, to continue to practice under probated suspensions or subject to a reprimand whereas the Pharmacy Board demands outright revocation as a matter of law. Likely they realize that revocation as a matter of law is unreasonable, overly draconian, and likely beyond the bounds of their administrative authority. Even a Texas criminal court has greater discretion in fitting an appropriate punishment to each case.

 

It remains to be seen whether or not Rule 281.64 can actually withstand legal scrutiny in a full contested case or declaratory judgment action. I feel confident that it cannot, however, even challenging this Rule places the pharmacist in a position where they have spend extensive legal fees, not to mention time and frustration, to circumvent Rule 281.64.

 

The lesson any pharmacist or pharmacist tech should take away is that if you are on deferred adjudication for a drug-related offense you should seek the advice of an attorney immediately. This attorney should also be someone who is familiar with the Texas State Board of Pharmacy, the Pharmacy Act, and the applicable administrative rules. Early intervention can mean the difference between continuing as a pharmacist and losing your license and source of income.

Am I Eligible for a Nursing License?: Declaratory Order of Eligibility for Licensure

 

I often receive calls from nursing students, or even those only considering pursuing a nursing degree, with questions concerning whether or not they will be licensed by the Board of Nursing. Typically, these individuals have a criminal record, history of misuse of controlled substances, or a mental health diagnosis that they fear will present an obstacle to successful licensure.

 

These persons have already taken best course of action by being proactive and contacting an attorney with experience before the Board and who should therefore be able to estimate the difficulty they may or may not face in applying for their license. Generally speaking most nurses with marks on their record should be able to obtain licensure. A good portion of these may have to do so under the form of a probationary license with restrictions related to whatever it is that concerns the Board.

 

For example, an applicant with a history of abuse of controlled substances may only receive their license on the condition that submit to random drug screens, attend AA meetings, successfully complete a recovery program, and work in an environment where they can be supervised by a superior nurse. A nurse with a criminal record may have to enter into an Agreed Order that provides for supervised practice and grants them only a provisional license with full licensure dependent on achieving a number of years of violation-free practice. Finally, persons with a serious psychiatric diagnosis may need to agree to an Order mandating that they continue with a specified medical treatment program to keep their condition under control.

 

The very few nurses who will likely not be issued a license are those with serious criminal convictions or an ongoing and untreated chemical dependency problem. On the issue of serious criminal offenses I am referring to convictions such as rape, sexual assault, kidnapping, injuring a child, or murder. Section 301.4535 of the Nursing Practice Act provides a list of criminal offenses for which the Board may refuse to license an applicant. Other felony convictions fall under this list as well.

 

Future nurses should note, however, that the Board is typically reluctant to license a nurse even a minor black mark on their record if they are not represented by an attorney. They will usually refuse outright or press a nurse to enter into an order with terms that are more stringent than indicated by their history. As in any disciplinary matter, the Board of nursing generally pursues the severest sanction unless the nurse has a lawyer to fight for their interests.

 

One option for students unsure of their eligibility for licensure is found in § 301.257 of the Nursing Practice Act. This section provides that a nursing student or even a person only considering attending a nursing school can file a Petition for a Declaratory Order of Eligibility for Licensure. In response, the Board of Nursing will then review that person’s history and assess whether they meet the required good moral and professional character standards. If they do, the Board Staff will issue a Declaratory Order finding that individual conditionally eligible for licensure as long as they graduate and later pass the standard nursing exams.

 

If you have questions about your eligibility for a Texas nursing license or the declaratory order procedure, please call an experienced administrative law attorney. They should be able to intelligently discuss your case and lay out your options. Don’t wait until after graduating from nursing school to find out that you may not be eligible for a Texas license.

The Need to Plea Carefully: Criminal Convictions and Medicare/Medicaid Exclusion

 

A recurring scenario in my office goes like this: A physician contacts me about a letter they have received from the Office of the Inspector General stating that they are investigating whether or not the doctor has been involved in conduct that warrants exclusion from the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Oftentimes this concerns the physician’s plea of guilty or nolo contendre to a crime involving these or other government programs or that has some other connection to health care. This is very frustrating to both me and the physician as under federal law even if they do not directly involve a federal program, if any of these crimes is a felony, the client has a serious chance of being summarily excluded.

 

Under the Social Security Act, the Office of the Inspector General must exclude a physician from Medicare and Medicaid participation for:

 

  • Conviction for any criminal offense related to a federal or state health care program;
  • Conviction for a crime relating to patient abuse;
  • Conviction for a felony connected to health care and involving fraud, theft, embezzlement, breach of fiduciary responsibility, or other financial misconduct; and
  • Conviction for a felony involving a controlled substance.

 

42 U.S.C. § 1320(a)(7).

 

The last two exclusion rules are the result of Congressional lobbying efforts by the OIG aimed at cutting down federal payments to “bad” physicians thereby saving program costs. The end product has been a set of broadly drafted laws that permit the OIG to exclude a physician who has been convicted for any of a wide array of crimes that can somehow be related back to health care. It should also press properly informed physicians into more carefully weighing their options when considering a plea.

 

Keep in mind that under the applicable federal law even a plea of nolo contendre will amount to a felony conviction. The same applies to pleas involving probation, community supervision, or deferred adjudication. Perhaps most important to remember is that an exclusion under any of the four grounds outlined above is both mandatory and for a minimum of five years. The impact on a physician’s practice and employment prospects caused by a five year exclusion is generally devastating if not fatal. Also note that under federal law, if a physician is excluded from one federal program, they are automatically excluded from all federal programs.

 

Unfortunately, most criminal defense attorneys are not aware of these serious consequences while they hammer out a plea for their physician clients. The fact is a physician should try and plea to a misdemeanor whenever possible, as an exclusion for most misdemeanors is neither mandatory nor for five years. Once a physician has been convicted of a felony related to health care, their only avenue for avoiding the mandatory exclusion is through obtaining a sole community provider waiver. See Title 42 CFR § 402.38. This is done by filing an appeal with the appropriate state agency and arguing that the physician who is to be excluded is the role provider of certain medical services to Medicare/Medicaid patients within a defined geographic area. If they state agency agrees, they will then request a waiver of exclusion from the OIG. This is a narrow exception; if like most doctors, the physician practices in a urban area, he or she will likely be ineligible unless their practice is extremely specialized.

 

The bottom-line is that any physician facing criminal charges would be prudent with contacting an attorney knowledgeable in the applicable federal law and experienced before the Office of the Inspector General. In this way, the physician can be completely informed of the potential consequences of any particular plea. Failure to do so, can result in a plea that effectively foreclose their ability to avoid federal exclusion.

 

It is also worth keeping in mind that a criminal conviction will almost certainly cause an inquiry and possible sanction by state licensing boards, professional/credentialing societies, provider networks, and institutions where the physician holds credentials. Thus Medicare/Medicaid exclusion mirrors the general characterization of medical and professional licensing law as a veritable house of cards where the removal of one can cause the rest to quickly follow suit. This is an area where the retention of an experienced attorney can make all the difference.