By Alexei Koseff, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
January 13, 2021
SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gavin Newsom used his emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic to extend the confirmation deadlines for three politically connected appointees to the state board that licenses and regulates doctors, allowing them to continue serving on the board without legislative approval.
In delaying their confirmations beyond the one-year limit set by California law, the governor ignored objections from a watchdog group that two of the appointees were inappropriate choices as regulators because they formerly led the California Medical Association, the state’s largest lobbying group for doctors.
The appointees are Asif Mahmood, a Los Angeles County doctor who shared campaign consultants with Newsom when they both ran for statewide office in 2018, and Richard Thorp and Dev GnanaDev, past presidents of the California Medical Association. The organization, which represents physicians in Sacramento, has longstanding ties to the governor, who dined with its chief executive and top lobbyist at the French Laundry in November.
Newsom appointed or reappointed the three members to the Medical Board of California in June and July of 2019. Ordinarily, they would have to have been confirmed by the state Senate by last summer to retain their positions.
But at the end of August, as the legislative session drew to a close without any of them receiving a hearing, Newsom issued an executive order moving the confirmation deadline for outstanding medical board appointees to April 1, 2021. This could ultimately allow Mahmood, Thorp and GnanaDev to serve on the board for nearly two years after their appointments without legislative consideration. The 15 members of the medical board serve four-year terms and receive $100 per day for attending meetings.
“The pandemic disrupted typical legislative operations and calendars including the Senate confirmation process for governor’s appointees,” Jesse Melgar, a spokesperson for Newsom, said in a statement. The Senate Rules Committee “worked to move governor’s appointees forward during this difficult time but were unable to get to everyone.”
He added, “We anticipate the appointees referenced will participate in a confirmation hearing ahead of the April 1 deadline.”
According to the Senate Rules Committee, eight gubernatorial appointees with confirmation deadlines in 2020 remained unconfirmed at the end of legislative session and had their deadlines extended to 2021 by executive order. Aside from the three medical board appointees, the five others all had confirmation deadlines that fell between October and December, while the Senate was out of session.
Melgar did not respond to questions about whether Mahmood, Thorp and GnanaDev were treated differently because of their political connections.
Mahmood was appointed to the medical board about a year after losing a primary for California insurance commissioner. Several of the consultants on his campaign also worked on Newsom’s 2018 race for governor.
Thorp was president of the California Medical Association in 2013 and 2014, and GnanaDev held the position in 2008 and 2009. Several Newsom advisers also have worked as political consultants and lobbyists for the organization over the years, including Jason Kinney, whose birthday Newsom celebrated at the French Laundry, and Jim DeBoo, who recently joined the governor’s office as executive secretary.
Mahmood, Thorp and GnanaDev were originally set to go before the Senate Rules Committee in March, shortly before the pandemic interrupted the legislative session. If approved by the committee, an appointee moves to the full Senate for confirmation.
On March 6, five days before the scheduled hearing, the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog wrote to the Senate leader and the governor’s office objecting to Thorp’s and GnanaDev’s appointments. Consumer Watchdog has been locked in a long-running battle with doctors over the monetary limit for medical malpractice settlements.
Tammy Smick, a board member of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, with a photo of her late son, Alex, at her home in Temecula (Riverside County). Smick has been critical of the medical board for being too lenient on doctors, including one that she says the board failed to hold accountable for the death of her son. Consumer Watchdog is opposing two of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointees to the regulatory Medical Board of California.
Tammy Smick, a member of Consumer Watchdog’s board, said filling the positions with former presidents of the California Medical Association would be contrary to the state board’s oversight mission and urged the Senate to reject their appointments.
Smick said in an interview that people who have led a lobbying group for doctors can’t be trusted to protect patients’ interest.
She pointed to her experience with the medical board over the death of her son Alex. Smick said he became addicted to prescription opioids while recovering from a back injury and died after being given a new regimen of medications during his first night in a hospital detox ward.
The Medical Board of California staff recommended that the supervising doctor of the detox ward have his license suspended or revoked for overprescribing and negligence, Smick said. But ultimately, the board settled with the doctor, giving him only a public reprimand.
“The governor needs to be appointing members who are going to protect us as health care consumers and not appointing members who are going to protect dangerous doctors,” Smick said.
Tammy Smick, a board member of the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, holds a book of photos of her late son Alex at her home in Temecula (Riverside County). Smick has been critical of the medical board for being too lenient on doctors, including one that she says the board failed to hold accountable for the death of her son. Consumer Watchdog is opposing two of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s appointees to the regulatory Medical Board of California.
Although Consumer Watchdog opposed GnanaDev, who was first appointed to the medical board by then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011, Smick said its main objection was to Thorp. He led the California Medical Association during its 2014 fight against a failed ballot initiative sponsored by Consumer Watchdog that would have raised the cap for medical malpractice damages. Smick said the group had no concerns about Mahmood.
The Senate hearings for all three have yet to be rescheduled. Melgar, the spokesperson for Newsom, said the governor’s office did not ask the Senate to pull the confirmation hearings last March and does not decide when his appointees are scheduled to be heard.
Newsom issued two executive orders last year, in May and June, that included blanket extensions of 90 days to gubernatorial appointment deadlines. This gave the Senate more time to confirm his appointees after multiple unanticipated recesses because of the coronavirus-delayed legislative business. In the final months of the session, the Senate rushed to consider dozens of appointees, ultimately confirming 185 for the year.
Then, on Aug. 24, a week before the Legislature adjourned until January, Newsom issued another order extending the deadline for appointees to the Medical Board of California until April 1. By that time, Mahmood, Thorp and GnanaDev had all already been serving on the board for more than a year.
Following an inquiry from The Chronicle, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins said the Rules Committee planned to consider the medical board appointees at a hearing Feb. 3. She said the Senate and the governor’s office had agreed to delay the confirmation given the coronavirus pandemic and the medical community’s role in the response.
“These types of hearings take time, and it is not uncommon for postponements to allow for deeper consideration,” Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, said in a statement. “With lives and livelihoods on the line — people literally going without paychecks and at risk of losing their homes — we had to prioritize passing legislation and a budget that would help as many Californians as possible, while holding off on things that could wait.”
Smick, the board member for Consumer Watchdog, said she has been frustrated waiting the past 10 months to make her case to the Senate. She said the delayed confirmation hearing is emblematic of the struggle to get the state to hold doctors accountable for harming patients.
“You just get the door slammed in your face time after time,” she said. “Then they can do what they want, but at least we need to be heard.”