Bill Would Require Criminal Background Checks for Doctors Who Lived Abroad

Andrew Kitchenman | April 9, 2015 | Health Care
Medical board opposes proposal, saying it would be costly and unfairly singles out physicians

A bill that would require international criminal background checks for doctors who have lived in other countries is being opposed by the New Jersey State Board of Medical Examiners, whose members say the bill unfairly singles out doctors and could create a logjam of applications for medical licenses.

The legislation, S-1533/A-2769, was introduced after a Pompton Lakes doctor failed to disclose a manslaughter conviction in the United Kingdom.

The bill would require the board to check whether a doctor has a criminal history in any other country before issuing or renewing a license. The board would also have to contact any medical or healthcare employers that applicants for new licenses have had over the previous 10 years.

The Senate passed the bill 38-1 last month; it’s now awaiting a committee vote in the Assembly.

The medical examiners board yesterday voted to oppose the bill, saying it would result in extra costs and delays in processing license applications. Board members also said the measure would single out doctors as the only professionals required to undergo such a background check.

“I think it’s overreaching, to look at a subset of the population” without conducting similar checks on others, said Dr. George J. Scott, who works at a Hammonton family practice.

But bill sponsor Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said the board’s primary responsibility is to protect the public..

“I always find it interesting that people complain about work that is actually their mission,” Weinberg said. “I’m sorry if they consider it too much work, but I think it’s a very worthwhile endeavor in order to protect consumers and patients.”

Weinberg said she would be happy to introduce similar bills affecting other professionals, adding that she considered the lack of international criminal history background checks to be a giant loophole in current law.

Weinberg introduced the measure in response to the case of Dr. Richard Kaul of Pompton Lakes, an anesthesiologist who billed himself as a spinal surgeon and performed spinal surgeries without the proper training.

In 2001, Kaul was convicted of manslaughter and lost his medical license in the United Kingdom after a patient he sedated for a tooth extraction went into cardiac arrest and died.

He later renewed an existing New Jersey medical license without disclosing the conviction. The medical examiners board revoked Kaul’s license in 2012 after he had malpractice cases involving six patients.

During a discussion of the bill, board member Dr. Sudhir Parikh noted that doctors coming from other countries generally would have undergone criminal background checks when they received their licenses in those countries. He also noted that they could commit crimes after their licenses were initially issued.

Board Vice President Karen Criss, a registered nurse and certified nurse midwife, said that the idea of background checks “is not a bad one,” but presents practical problems.

“It seems to me that, again, it’s going to be somewhat burdensome for the board staff to conduct these,” Criss said.

In a note estimating the fiscal impact of the bill, a staff member with the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services wrote that it isn’t clear who would pay for the background checks. Under current law, applicants must cover the cost of checking for state and federal criminal histories. The proposed bill doesn’t specifically authorize the board to require applicants to pay for international background checks, leaving open the possibility that the state would have to cover the costs.

The background checks present other challenges, since there isn’t a specific clearinghouse for the information.

“Each country has varying laws and privacy policies about the type of records they can make available and who is allowed to access these records,” according to the OLS fiscal estimate. “Additionally, there may be variables that may make the process lengthier, such as time and language differences.”

While the board has handled 40,000 to 45,000 license applications in recent years, it’s not clear how many of these doctors have histories of working in other countries.

The Medical Society of New Jersey, the state’s largest doctors group, welcomed the board vote against the bill.

“We think it’s going to be costly,” said Mishael Azam, society chief operating officer and senior manager for legislative affairs. She added that the society hopes Gov. Chris Christie will veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

Sen. Michael J. Doherty (R-Hunterdon, Somerset and Warren) was the only senator to vote against the bill.