Everything you need to know about upcoming Louisiana special session, how it might affect taxpayers like you _lowres

Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- The Louisiana State Capitol.

Another bill that would change how physician misconduct is investigated in Louisiana is advancing at the State Capitol, despite some concerns that recent legislative proposals could ultimately make patients more vulnerable to bad doctors.

The House Health and Welfare Committee on Wednesday advanced House Bill 277 to the House floor for consideration, without objection.

The specifics of the bill are still being hammered out in the process, but ultimately it seeks to add layers of "due process" that some doctors say they aren't currently given when they are put under the microscope of the state Board of Medical Examiners.

Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Republican who sponsored HB277 and represents doctors who face board investigations, said she's seeking to clear up legislation that she backed in 2015 to alter the board's investigations process.

She said she wants to protect doctors from being investigated just because "someone on staff is mad with a doctor."

As it passed the committee, the bill would require a formal complaint to lodge an investigation, but that has sparked concern.

Rep. Joe Stagni, R-Kenner, said he worries it would open Louisiana up to doctors roaming from state-to-state to get out of punishment for misconduct.

"There may be no complaint but there is a complaint getting ready to happen," he said. "The purpose of this board is to protect the public – not to protect the physicians."

Currently, the board can launch an investigation based on criminal arrests and other law enforcement flags, as well as shared information between states and the federal government. If, for example, a doctor is arrested with illegal substances in another state, that could prompt an investigation from the Medical Examiners Board here.

Legislature considers sweeping changes to investigations of doctor misconduct

Jackson said she would work with the board to fine tune the bill so that it wouldn't remove those resources, potentially letting bad doctors continue to practice in the state. But she takes issue with the "compliance audit" that allows investigations.

She compared the power of the state medical board to the Louisiana Bar Association and said she didn't think that it is fair to hold doctors to a different standard.

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"This is one of the only professions I know right now that the board has the ability to just waltz in someone's office and investigate them," she said.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Robert Johnson, also a lawyer, noted the difference in professions and said he's not ready to agree that they should be held to the same standard. "We save people's tails but we don't always save people's lives," he said.

The passage of her bill, which was supported by the Louisiana State Medical Society and other health care groups, came just a day after the state Senate approved a wider-reaching "Physician's Bill of Rights" in Senate Bill 286. Among other provisions, SB286 would bar the use of confidential sources and give doctors more control over how they are investigated. It's come under fire from at least one national consumer advocacy group. Doctors from Washington-based Public Citizen sent a letter this week to Louisiana legislators warning that SB286 could have a chilling effect on investigations and "substantially impede" the state board's ability to protect the public from bad doctors.

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Johnson, D-Marksville, said the Senate bill gives him "grave concern."

"I worry about these policy changes. They seem to be very drastic," he said.

Asked by The Advocate for an assessment of the proposed "Physician's Bill of Rights," a spokesman for the Federation of State Medical Boards said the nonpartisan national non-profit is "unaware of any similar pieces of legislation that have been introduced or passed in any other state."

Johnson said he believes that measures are being driven by "a clash of personalities" – an assessment that Board of Medical Examiners executive director Van Culotta deemed "exactly correct" during the House Health Committee hearing on Jackson's bill.

Last week's Senate committee hearing on SB286 was peppered with repeated accusations lobbed at Dr. Cecilia Mouton, the director of investigations for the board, related to doctors' suicides based on inferred links to board investigations. Mouton was not in attendance and has declined to comment.

Johnson said he finds it "staggering" that the state could look to sweeping policy changes over personal vendettas.

"I just hope we are not going down the road of getting bad policy. I worry about that," he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.