Another bastion of secrecy falls; time to finish job

Posted on Thu, Aug. 10, 2006

FOR AS LONG as we can remember, we’ve been told that the whole idea of open government just doesn’t work when it comes to the professional disciplinary process. Let the public see the complaints, the protectors of secrecy warned, and reputations would be ruined by reckless charges.

Then we allowed a little sunlight to seep into the lawyer disciplinary process, and the legal profession did not self-destruct. To the contrary, the only disciplinary action that’s received significant attention involved a prosecutor who winked as a deputy violated a defendant’s constitutional rights — the type of case that even the most aggressive opponents of the public’s right to know would have a hard time arguing should be secret.

Then we allowed a bit of sunlight into the disciplinary process for doctors, and the medical profession has not been inundated with scurrilous attacks. To the contrary, the public was able to see details that administrative law judges had tried to hide about two notorious doctors whom the medical profession itself alleged were posing an actual danger to patients.

Now the public will be able to learn about some complaints lodged against veterinarians. Under a new law that passed this year, complaints that are pursued by the Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners will be public, as will disciplinary hearings and final actions against vets accused of wrongdoing.

And there is no reason to believe that worthy veterinarians will be run out of business by baseless charges, either. The defenders of secrecy overlook a crucial fact: Someone who wants to smear a professional doesn’t need to hijack the state’s disciplinary system to do so — there are much easier ways, from filing a lawsuit to hanging posters around town or its modern equivalent, creating a Web site to spread false charges.

This small victory for openness comes thanks in large part to Mt. Pleasant’s Marcia Rosenberg, who took up the cause five years ago after her kitten was nearly killed during botched surgery by a veterinarian who had left behind a string of dead or severely injured pets in two other states. Dr. Steven Shrum, immediate past president of the S.C. Veterinary Medical Association, recently told DVM Newsmagazine that “with veterinarians wanting to be considered medical doctor equivalents, we determined we had to follow the same rules” as physicians, whose disciplinary process is open.

The new rules for vets — like those for doctors and lawyers — are far from perfect. They still shield complaints the disciplinary boards consider too flimsy even to investigate.

The logic behind that is that most complaints are so baseless that it would be unfair to publicize them. But without complete disclosure, we can never know for sure whether that’s truly the case, or whether the disciplinary boards are working overtime to protect the profession rather than the public. Protecting the public is, after all, the only justification for the state government to license and regulate professions.

This flaw means the rules for veterinarians, and doctors and lawyers, will eventually need further change. Even more urgent, though, is the need to bring all of South Carolina’s three dozen professional disciplinary boards into the open. Because of the nature of their professions, doctors and lawyers are the most likely targets of unfounded allegations. If they can stand a little sunshine on their disciplinary process, then surely the others can as well.

© 2006 The State and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.thestate.com

Pass open records changes

TUESDAY, MAY 10, 2005 12:00 AM

On our letters page today, the Senate is urged to approve a House-passed bill that would put more sunshine on the disciplinary procedure for physicians in this state. The legislation deserves approval as does a similar proposal for South Carolina veterinarians.
At this point, the change in the rules governing complaints against physicians has a better chance of becoming law than increased public access to complaints against vets, even though the proposals started out much the same.

Unfortunately, the House removed a provision for increased access to vet board records before it passed a comprehensive veterinarian practice bill. Sen. Larry Grooms of Bonneau is spearheading an effort to add the provision to the comprehensive vet bill now on the contested Senate calendar. Actually, Sen. Grooms tells us he is holding up the legislation in hopes of getting a compromise that stands a chance of passage.

The senator has been working with a Mount Pleasant housewife, Marcia Rosenberg, who has spent the past several years trying to ensure that other pet owners wouldn’t face the stonewall she first encountered when she filed a complaint after botched surgery on her kitten. She persevered in that case and after other complaints were filed, the veterinarian involved agreed to close his practice.

As Bill Rogers of the S.C. Press Association notes in his letter, medical groups haven’t opposed the effort to balance the protection of physicians against unfounded complaints with the public’s right of access to complaints that the medical board takes seriously enough to call for a hearing. The same should be true of veterinary medicine.

This article was printed via the web on 5/10/2005 10:54:02 AM . This article
appeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at Charleston.net on Tuesday, May 10, 2005.

S.C. vets want complaints to be private

Posted on Sun, Apr. 17, 2005

Doctors backing bills to gag citizens in animal cases
By JOHN MONK
News Columnist
S.C. veterinarians want to muzzle more than dogs these days. Two bills they support would stop citizens from speaking out about incompetent vets.

Bills making their way through the House and Senate would gag citizens who file complaints against veterinarians who they think are incompetent.

The secrecy provisions in the bills are the opposite of those in a bill that almost passed last year. Last year’s bill would have opened up the now-secretive veterinarian disciplinary process, allowing the public to attend hearings once a complaint was determined to be legitimate.

The proposed gagging of citizens who file complaints might violate free-speech rights, said Bill Rogers, executive director of the S.C. Press Association.

“You shouldn’t have to get permission to speak about a public issue,” Rogers said. He noted the S.C. Supreme Court ruled last year that the State Ethics Commission acted improperly in trying to enforce a confidentiality rule against a newspaper.

John Crangle of Common Cause of South Carolina said the secrecy provision is “self-serving and designed to protect individuals who should be exposed for wrongdoing.”

But veterinarians defend the gagging. They say the proposed disciplinary provisions actually are more open than the current law.

Two nearly identical bills have been introduced, one in the House and one in the Senate. The Senate might take up its bill this week.

The new bills, vets say, would — for the first time — allow a citizen who files a formal complaint against a veterinarian to attend the vet’s disciplinary hearing. However, those hearings would remain closed to the public. Currently, citizens who file complaints are banned from disciplinary hearings, which take place only if a complaint is determined to be legitimate.

Veterinarians, including Dr. Roger Troutman of Rock Hill, say prohibiting a pet owner from talking publicly about a complaint is intended to prevent the airing of frivolous grievances.

“Small-town veterinarians seemed to have the most concern about that,” said Troutman, who last year was president of the S.C. Association of Veterinarians. “Negative publicity” before a hearing can unfairly damage a vet, he said.

But Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley, who wants to open veterinary hearings once a complaint is deemed legitimate, said the bills’ secrecy could put pets in danger.

Grooms recalled the bungled operation that came close to killing Pumpkin, a cat owned by Marcia Rosenberg of Mount Pleasant. After her cat was saved by another vet, Rosenberg went on a multiyear crusade resulting in the veterinarian disciplinary board suspending Dr. Stan Gorlitsky. Gorlitsky, who later agreed to retire, had a documented record of maiming cats and dogs in Ohio as well as in South Carolina.

If it hadn’t been for Rosenberg making public dozens of complaints about Gorlitsky and putting pressure on a slow-moving veterinary disciplinary board, Gorlitsky still might be practicing, Grooms said. Under the new bills, someone like Rosenberg would be gagged, he said.

“The vet board’s charge is to protect the public,” Grooms said. “But if the public doesn’t have a right to know what’s going on behind closed doors, how is the public protected?”

Rosenberg, who is working against the secrecy provisions, said, “If something bad happens to your pet, you should have the right to tell your friends and neighbors.”

One lawmaker who helped shape the new vet bill is state Sen. Danny Verdin, R-Laurens.

Last June, a bill that included opening the veterinary discipline process to the public was set to become law. But Verdin, who opposed public discipline, staged a filibuster. Senate rules allowed Verdin — acting as a single senator — to kill the bill.

At the time, Verdin, whose father is a veterinarian, said secrecy serves the public. “The best way to protect the public is to protect the profession.”

Verdin did not return repeated calls last week.

Verdin helped draft this year’s bills, said veterinarians and state Rep. Tom Dantzler, R-Berkeley, the sponsor of the House bill.

Dantzler, a retired vet, said he supported the openness in last year’s bill. Now, however, he supports this year’s bill.

“In my 11 years in the Legislature, I’ve never seen a bill that pleased everyone,” he said. After last year’s bill was killed, veterinarians had to draft a bill that would pass, he said.

Secrecy is only a small part of the bill, he said. Other provisions would:

• Require a new veterinarian to train for two months under a more experienced vet

• Allow forms of alternative medicine to be used on pets, such as acupuncture and physical therapy

• Increase fines on wayward vets to $1,000 from $500

• Add a consumer representative to the vet disciplinary board, now made up of only veterinarians.

Veterinarian Dr. Valerie Alexander of Rock Hill, chairman of the S.C. Board of Veterinary Examiners, supports the new bills. They “provide increased protection for the consumer,” she said.

She said she especially likes the section that lets a complaining pet owner attend the secret disciplinary hearings. “It allows the complainant to hear all the facts and to feel confident that their complaint has been appropriately addressed.”

But Rogers of the Press Association, which includes The State newspaper among its members, said veterinarians might find their reputations in jeopardy if they insist on muzzling citizens who file complaints and then holding secret, closed hearings.

“When people are gagged and proceedings are held in secret, the public has room to doubt that things are done fairly,” Rogers said.

The new bills also include one other change from current law.

In the current law, a mission statement makes it clear the veterinary laws are “to protect the public from being misled by incompetent, unscrupulous” vets. Veterinary laws are “in the interest of the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of South Carolina.”

All that language is deleted in the proposed bills.

Asked why there is no mission statement in the new bills, Alexander said that, even without those words, “Our mission hasn’t changed.”

© 2005 The State and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.thestate.com

Malpractice disclosure triggers standoff

Aug 1, 2004

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Late legislative maneuvering stymied a South Carolina bill that would make complaints against veterinarians’ public record.

The stance, dubbed by some a filibuster, was led by Sen. Daniel Verdin to quash a bill that would make complaints against veterinarians public before the state’s board of veterinary examiners ruled on a case. The legislation would allow for a preliminary investigation of a veterinary complaint before it was publically disclosed.

Verdin’s actions caused the session to end, thereby killing legislation that was four years in the making. Supporters of the bill are betting it will be reintroduced in January as the Legislature reconvenes.

The board of examiners and South Carolina Association of Veterinarians (SCAV) back the measure.

“It has been almost 30 years since a significant change has been made to the practice act,” says H. Kelley Jones, SCAV executive director. “It’s time for the change.”

Current practice has an Investigative Review Committee (IRC) comprised of retired board members and staff from the South Carolina Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation (LLR) investigate complaints. The IRC compiles information on the complaint and reports to the board of examiners. If the board rules the complaint has merit based on IRC recommendations, they proceed with a hearing. At this point under the proposed bill, the veterinarian would receive a letter from the board and the complaint would be made public.

This is the section of the bill that those involved with the legislative process can agree to disagree. Verdin says practitioners will lose out with this process and should only be judged by a jury of their peers.

“The Investigative Review Committee is not a jury of peers,” Verdin says.

The problem is, the group that investigates cannot be the same that judicates, says Rep. Tom Dantzler, DVM, the only veterinarian in the General Assembly.

“The IRC are ex-veterinarians and know what is and is not appropriate,” he says.

Dantzler shepherded the bill through the legislature and says he hopes it’s reintroduced next January, unaltered from its current form.

“I like the bill the way it is,” Dantzler says. “I think it is time to update our system and these changes should be made.”

Dantzler says that of the years he was a practicing veterinarian, he never fully knew how disciplinary acts evolved .because he was never in the situation where he was called before the board.

“If you are a good veterinarian, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about,” Dantzler says. “I feel the board of examiners is doing a good job, and there is nothing to hide. There is a feeling from the consumer that these meetings are held in secret.”

Marcia Rosenberg brought what she considers a flaw in veterinary legislation to light four years ago when her cat Pumpkin was improperly cared for by a local veterinarian during a routine spay. The veterinarian responsible for the procedure had his license suspended for one year with two years of probation and had many other complaints against him. The doctor also had his license suspended once before in Ohio for malpractice and gross incompetence, according to court documents, and is currently practicing in South Carolina.

“There is such a small amount of veterinarians who are not good at what they do,” Rosenberg says. “The 1 percent who are bad should be exposed to allow consumers to know who they are trusting with their pets’ lives.”

“We looked at the process closer when Marcia Rosenberg brought the problem to the attention of the board of examiners and SCAV,” Jones says. “She presented plenty of documents proving the consumer has little rights and is not kept informed in the decision making process.”

South Carolina is not the first state to change the process in which cases are heard, Dantzler says.

Upon the request of Verdin, SCAV conducted a survey of its members to get a better understanding of sentiment on the topic. Verdin’s analogy of the survey says veterinarians are against the practice act change, where the SCAV and the board of examiners say their members are in favor of the change and only opposed to a couple of the survey’s questions.

“I would think the SCAV would do what their members ask, which is to not support this bill,” Verdin says. “But they are allowing media and possibly disgruntled clients or workers decide their stance on the issue.”

Dr. Claude Schumpert, chair of the South Carolina Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners, says of the 17 states surveyed in a confidentiality issues information poll, 12 already have an open process.

“We’re not plowing new ground; other states are already more public with their process, Texas being one of them,” Dantzler says.

Verdin, whose father is a practicing veterinarian in the state, says not many members of the General Assembly are tuned into veterinary law and might not understand how this change of practice will affect practitioners.

“When there are 4,000 pieces of legislation to look at and there are only two members of the General Assembly (Dantzler and Verdin) who are familiar with the way veterinary law works, practice acts may be passed without being in the majority’s best interest,” Verdin says.

The last time South Carolina had a significant change to the practice act, was 1976, Schumpert adds.

“The new bill would do more than enough to protect veterinarians,” Schumpert says. “Board members are not allowed to be investigator and judicator, that is why an IRC is put in place.”

In addition to retired board members and LLC, a state appointed attorney is also on the review board.

“Only about 10 percent of all investigations are followed up with a hearing,” Schumpert says. “This isn’t going to change anything except for the point at which the information would become public.”

Verdin says the veterinary association and veterinary examining board should look at the survey and see that veterinarians do not want the bill to pass in its current form.

Schumpert replies to the comment by saying Verdin is only considering a couple of the questions asked on the survey and not looking at it as a whole.

“Consumers are not having more say than the professional,” Schumpert says. “This is not the worst thing that has happened to veterinary medicine in our state by a long shot.”

Schumpert says he would like to have an open forum to lay everything on the table, where anyone who wanted could attend to discuss the bill and prepare for its introduction in the Legislature next year.

Dr. Daniel Verdin, senator Verdin’s father, describes the bill as outrageous and says he does not see other veterinarians in the state agreeing with the bill, either.

The Greater Greenville Veterinary Medical Association of Simpsonville, S.C., voted to support the revisions to the proposed practice act, with 18 votes for the act, five against and three abstaining from the vote.

DVM Newsmagazine

To obtain a copy of the entire practice act, visit  www.scav.com and click on “H3889 Proposed Practice Act.”

Vet’s retirement doesn’t diminish need for reform

Posted on Wed, Aug. 04, 2004

TWO YEARS AFTER he became the poster child for the need to reform South Carolina’s system for regulating veterinarians, Dr. Stan Gorlitsky has sold his practice and agreed not to open another one in the state.

Unfortunately, while he won’t be able to harm any more pets, this action was the result of an agreement between the Mount Pleasant veterinarian and the state Board of Veterinary medical Examiners. That means the board was not able to unilaterally revoke Dr. Gorlitsky’s license, despite its finding that he had been incompetent and negligent in his care for animals in South Carolina — and that he had left behind a string of dead or severely injured pets in two other states.

Worse, in the two years since his botched, and nearly fatal, spay surgery of a kitten named Pumpkin vaulted the veterinarian and the sorry state of our laws onto the front page, the Legislature has not fixed the problem.

Legislators tried; they just didn’t try hard enough to overcome the determined objections of a state senator whose father, a veterinarian, would potentially be affected by the new rules. More than a year ago, the House and the Senate both passed veterinary reform bills. Then they spent the first half of this year trying to work out the differences between the two versions. Once they finally did — over the objection of negotiator Danny Verdin — it was late enough that Sen. Verdin was able to block a Senate vote on the compromise.

Sen. Verdin said he had no problem with most of the changes, which included an internship requirement for new veterinarians. But he adamantly opposed the heart of the legislation — an amazingly modest proposal to partially lift the veil of secrecy that shrouds pet owners’ complaints about potentially dangerous veterinarians.

It is that veil of secrecy, more than any weakness in the authorized powers of the Board of Veterinary Medicine, that makes South Carolina a potentially dangerous place for pets — and for people as well. That veil of secrecy shielded many of the complaints that other pet owners had filed against Dr. Gorlitsky. That meant that even if Pumpkin’s owner checked references, she wouldn’t have had any idea how bad his record was.

Sen. Verdin argued that letting the public know about complaints would lead pet owners to switch to veterinarians against whom complaints had not been filed — which, of course, is one of the main reasons the state would take it upon itself to license and regulate any profession: to allow the public to protect itself from potentially dangerous professionals.

The secrecy that shrouds complaints, and sometimes even “disciplinary actions,” is not limited to veterinarians. It is the hallmark of nearly all the professional disciplinary systems in the state. And it needs to be changed in all cases. What is so appalling is that our state’s cult of secrecy is so strong that it cannot be broken even when we have such a clear-cut, high-profile example of the danger it poses.

Sen. Verdin’s actions were, frankly, outrageous, and all the more so because of his personal connection to the profession. But the larger problem is that the rest of the Legislature allowed his protectionist, anti-consumer attitude to carry the day. While it would have been difficult (though not impossible) for the House to break the impasse, the Senate could easily have passed the new law over his objections. Pet lovers should demand to know why their senator didn’t do that. And they should demand that the legislation be passed next year.

© 2004 The State and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.
http://www.thestate.com

Veterinarian agrees to stop practicing

Story last updated at 7:25 a.m. Saturday, July 24, 2004 

Pet owner pushed for license to be revoked after cat’s near-fatal surgery

BY JASON HARDIN
Of The Post and Courier Staff

A Mount Pleasant veterinarian whose license was previously suspended by the S.C. Veterinary Medical Examiners board voluntarily agreed this week to permanently cease practicing in the state.

Dr. Stanley Gorlitsky, whose license was suspended for one year in 2002, signed a formal agreement with the board to give up veterinary medicine.

In 2002, the board had found that Gorlitsky was incompetent and negligent in his care of animals.

Marcia Rosenberg, a Mount Pleasant resident, complained about Gorlitsky after he spayed her cat, Pumpkin.

The operation went badly and nearly killed the cat, she said. A second vet had to perform a follow-up operation to save Pumpkin’s life, said Rosenberg.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” Rosenberg said Friday. “She would have died.”

Since then, Rosenberg has pushed to have Gorlitsky’s license revoked.

The agreement states that Gorlitsky said that he has sold his practice and retired from practicing veterinary medicine.

Gorlitsky’s wife, Suzanne, confirmed Friday that he had retired and said that he had no further comment on the matter.

The agreement calls for Gorlitsky to give up his right to practice forever and states that he will not be eligible to reapply for a South Carolina license.

The document does not restrict his ability to practice in other states.

Rosenberg said her experience made her want to fight to protect other animals.

As for Pumpkin, the cat eventually recovered.

“She is fine,” said Rosenberg. “She’s beautiful. She’s healthy.”

Jason Hardin covers the city of Charleston. Contact him at 937-5549 or at jhardin@postandcourier.com.

 

Veterinarian suspended for one year

Posted on Fri, Jul. 26, 2002

Pet owners filed a dozen complaints in two years against Lowcountry doctor
By JOE GUY COLLIER
Staff Writer

A Lowcountry veterinarian, against whom a dozen complaints have been filed in the past two years, had his license suspended for a year on Thursday.

Dr. Stan Gorlitsky, a Mount Pleasant veterinarian, was incompetent and negligent in his care of animals, the state Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners said.

Marcia Rosenberg, a Mount Pleasant pet owner, said she was pleased. Rosenberg filed a complaint two years ago about Gorlitsky’s care of her cat, Pumpkin.

“I do look it at this as a success, but it’s not making me get off this case,” said Rosenberg, who wanted Gorlitsky’s veterinary license revoked.

Gorlitsky declined to comment. He did not wait around for the board’s decision.

After a year’s suspension, Gorlitsky can reapply for his license but will be on probation for two years, the board said.

The board reached its decision after a daylong hearing that was capped with more than two hours of closed-door deliberations.

The board heard the complaints of four pet owners.

In one case, the owner said Gorlitsky left a needle in a beagle named Huey. Another owner said Gorlitsky misdiagnosed mange on a puppy named Abby. The mange spread to the owner.

A golden retriever named Sparky died of water in her lungs and heart after visiting Gorlitsky’s office, one owner said.

Ben Sumrell said Sophie, a Jack Russell Terrier he owned, died at Gorlitsky’s office after being dropped off for a spaying.

People should know about the pet deaths and injuries at Gorlitsky’s office, Sumrell said. “They stop in and they’re not even aware of what’s been going on.”

Thursday’s hearing also put scrutiny on the veterinary board, which some say has not been vigilant in looking out for the public.

Dr. Dennis Feinberg, the board’s chairman, said he couldn’t discuss Gorlitsky’s case.

The Charleston veterinarian said the board “has always taken its charge very seriously ‘.‘.‘. to protect the publicthe health, safety and welfare of the public.”

Thursday’s decision was a step in the right direction, but the board has a long way to go, Rosenberg said.

She’s pushing for legislation that would open more of the board’s proceedings and records. Veterinarians with a pattern of problems need to be punished, she said.

“Anybody can make a mistake, but to make mistakes over and over again is not acceptable,” Rosenberg said. “These people need to be stopped.”

 

Reach Collier at (803) 771-8307 or  HYPERLINK “mailto:jcollier@thestate.com” jcollier@thestate.com