Paul Sisson, SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE
The Medical Board of California may soon get a significant boost to its enforcement powers, but some are already saying that proposed changes do not go far enough.
On a unanimous vote Monday, the state Senate Committee on Business, Professions and Economic Development approved a “sunset review” bill that would allow the board to continue operating through 2028, simultaneously expanding its ability to pursue physician discipline statewide.
Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, the committee’s chair, said the changes “are aimed at ensuring that the medical board has the tools to do the job that we’ve tasked them with and do so efficiently and effectively.”
Proposals include increasing the board’s budget so that it can afford more employees to investigate allegations of doctor wrongdoing; adding two more members to the board’s roster of directors, which would shift the preponderance of leadership away from physicians; reducing the burden of proof required for less severe cases; speeding up enforcement powers when a doctor is convicted of a felony involving “moral turpitude, dishonesty, corruption, fraud or sexual assault”; and a range of other actions.
To be sure, if the list of changes ultimately survives a series of legislative hearings, it will be a massive increase in the medical board’s powers, but some note that a big ask requested in recent public hearings is missing.
A series of high-profile cases involving doctors has put pressure on the medical board to increase the speed and consequences of its discipline process for more than a decade now, and Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy organization, was quick to issue a statement on the proceedings Monday, citing an ongoing disciplinary issue in San Diego as an example of why changes are needed.
Just this month, Deputy District Attorney Gina Darvas brought a charge of second-degree murder against Dr. Carlos Chacón, a Bonita plastic surgeon initially accused of involuntary manslaughter in 2021 after the death of patient Megan Espinoza in 2018.
Court files said Espinoza suffered cardiac arrest during a breast augmentation surgery, indicating that the surgeon waited three hours before calling 911.
Carmen Balber, Consumer Watchdog’s executive director, said the missing piece remains patient notification. Many, she said, still find it unacceptable that doctors facing criminal charges aren’t required to inform those they are actively treating.
“The medical board has embraced some of the things that the public has been asking for, and some of these are absolutely game changers,” Balber said. “But we want to make sure that patients have the information that they need to keep themselves safe.”
Marc Carlos, Chacón’s attorney, stressed in an email Monday afternoon that accusations, by their very nature, are unproven.
“Criminal charges are allegations and unproven until judgment is final,” Carlos said. “Dr. Chacón has been complying with all court orders.
“Dr. Chacón is steadfast in his determination to defend and clear his name. This case is problematic for the medical profession in the District Attorney’s decision to file homicide charges for results which may have been the unavoidable consequence of any surgery.”
But former patients are unequivocal in their insistence that they deserve to have their doctor tell them about the situation, rather than learning about it after the fact. Patricia Plascensia, a San Diego resident who said she went to Chacón to have breast implants removed in 2021, was surprised to learn of the allegations afterward.
“I trusted somebody with my life, and he was already, at that point, accused of manslaughter, but I wasn’t told, and, to me, that’s a major thing,” Plascensia said.
Judith Gorcey, Megan Espinoza’s mother, agreed.
“If there are pending criminal charges then I would hope that the doctor would be forced to acknowledge them,” Gorcey said.
The California Medical Society represents doctors statewide and had its lobbyist comment on Monday’s proceedings in Sacramento. George Soares told the board that the society objects to proposed licensing fee increases to help pay for additional personnel. The society, he said, is also opposed to adding additional public members to the medical board, shifting the majority of votes away from doctors.
“There has been no demonstration of why this would be good for the public, for the state, for patients or the practice of medicine,” Soares said, also requesting that the lessened evidentiary standard for lesser infractions also be removed from the bill.
Information on the timing of the bill’s next hearing was not immediately available Monday.