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Updated Nov 20, 2013 - 4:20 pm

Investigator: Arizona Medical Board troubles should be warning to others

PHOENIX -- Problems found at the Arizona board that licenses physicians should be a wake-up call to other state agencies and trigger reviews of their polices, the head of an independent legislative watchdog agency said Wednesday.

Arizona Ombudsman-Citizens' Aide Dennis Wells told members of the state Legislature's heath committees that the Arizona Medical Board ignored laws and rules on physician licensing when it developed a fast-tracked licensing system. Wells said its former executive director thought she had the right to change rules at will, despite laws governing how licenses are issued.

``It is my belief that the report is a wake-up call and that every state agency should review with the attorney general how they're following the law,'' Wells said. ``Our message to all state agencies is `don't let this happen in your shop.'''

An ombudsman's investigation into allegations made by medical board employees determined Executive Director Lisa Wynn had bypassed laws requiring background checks and other reviews of applicants in order to streamline the licensing process.

The board fired Wynn just three days after the ombudsman released its report on Oct. 9.

Lawmakers quizzed Wells about the investigations and why he didn't pursue board members themselves. But Wells said his agency's only role is to respond to complaints and investigate them, not head off on an open-ended probe.

Dr. Gordi Khera, the board's chairman, testified that since he took over in February and became aware of the problems, staff oversight has greatly increased and that will not stop.

``In the last six months we've had more meetings than we've had in the past six years. There are special meetings held nearly every two weeks'' said Khera, a Glendale cardiologist. ``We're in constant touch with the interim (executive director). There's a significant change from where we were to where we are now. That's going to happen as long as I'm chair.''

Sen. Nancy Barto, the Senate's health and human services committee chair, said that practice needs to be written into policy.

``I think it's important to codify those policies going forward so there isn't this terrible disconnect between the board and the staff,'' Barto said.

Khera said the medical board is reviewing more than 2,000 licenses and hundreds of renewals that were issued between September 2011 and when the report was released to make sure the applicants are qualified.

Wednesday's hearing came a day after six former medical board employees filed claims saying Wynn forced them from their jobs after they questioned the legality of the licensing.

Democratic committee members questioned whether Barto, a Phoenix Republican, inappropriately communicated with board members before Wynn's firing. Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said ``when there's a perception that it isn't open and transparent'' communicating with the board should be avoided because lawmakers could influence decisions.

Barto fired back, saying she believes it's her duty to watch the board.

``It's our purview as legislators to oversee what's going on with boards,'' Barto said. ``Individuals, including myself, are not influencing the board.''

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