AUSTIN (KXAN) — A new bill wants to make it easier for patients to check up on their doctors.

After a yearlong series of KXAN investigations, a lawmaker filed legislation this session aimed at reforming the Texas Medical Board.

It’s been almost a year since State Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch, said “that’s not going to fly” and pledged “to do something about” problems a series of KXAN investigations revealed — including dozens of doctors with medical licenses suspended, surrendered and revoked in other states still practicing, or able to, in Texas. We found doctors with disciplinary actions having “clean” records on the TMB’s website, despite a state law requiring out-of-state discipline be made public.

“My immediate reaction was, well, if the Texas Medical Board isn’t going to do it on its own, I’m going to file a bill,” Johnson told KXAN in March 2022. “I’m going to do something about it.”

‘Direct result’ of KXAN reporting

This month, Johnson followed through on her promise and filed HB 1998. If passed, it would require the TMB to:

  • Search the National Practitioner Data Bank monthly and make public any disciplinary actions found.
  • Prevent doctors who have had medical licenses revoked in other states from practicing in Texas.

The TMB declined to comment on Johnson’s bill.

“The Board does not have any specific statement on legislative proposals introduced during session,” TMB spokesman Jarrett Schneider said in a statement, “but the Board is happy to work with any member of the Legislature to better serve Texans.”

“That’s a direct result of your reporting,” said Texas Watch executive director Ware Wendell, outside the Capitol.

Texas Watch is a nonpartisan non-profit that advocates on a range of consumer issues, including patient safety.

“Your reporting has shined a light on critical problems with the Texas Medical Board right now,” Wendell said.

Previously, the TMB acknowledged its honor-system approach puts the onus on doctors to self-report and admitted it had not “gone the extra step” to post information online because it would be “staff and time intensive.”

“As far as, ‘Does the [Texas] Medical Board go and review all, you know, 154,000 of our licensees to make sure that they’ve disclosed everything that’s come in?’ That’s something that’s a little more time intensive that the medical board has not in the past done,” TMB executive director Stephen Carlton said a year ago.

Following KXAN’s investigation, the TMB passed a rule change last June requiring doctors to self-report criminal convictions, out-of-state disciplinary actions and medical malpractice claims within 30 days. Previously, it was every two years. The TMB said it would also more proactively update its online profiles of physicians after KXAN identified some out-of-state discipline records kept secret. At the time, Carlton acknowledged “some gaps” that KXAN identified and noted the TMB is “always looking for ways we can improve.”

Wendell called Johnson’s proposals “critical” and said the bill would force the TMB to do its job “better.”

“Passing this legislation, this session, is a top priority for Texas Watch,” he said. “Because it will protect patients all across our state.”

graphic with a picture of johnson and a quote from her that says "I will continue working with stakeholders and advocates on the bill language and implementation to ensure patients are protected"

Preventing another ‘Dr. Death’

Dr. Robert Henderson agrees. Portrayed in the Peacock miniseries, “Dr. Death,” the Dallas spinal surgeon is responsible for helping stop Dr. Christopher Duntsch, who was sentenced to life in prison in 2017 after leaving more than 30 patients injured or dead.

“I’m extraordinarily pleased that Rep. Johnson is addressing these issues,” Henderson said.

More than a decade after he first got involved in the Duntsch case, Henderson says he’s “frustrated” the system meant to protect patients allowed Duntsch to keep practicing, transferring from hospital to hospital, despite obvious red flags.

“We do need more effective protection for the public,” Henderson said. “I think, certainly, those laws ought to be enhanced. They ought to be strengthened.”

One of Johnson’s proposals would require hospitals report disciplinary actions affecting clinical privileges — like suspensions — lasting 30 days or less, to the National Practitioner Data Bank. The problem is, by law, the Data Bank — a confidential clearinghouse of physician discipline and malpractice lawsuit records established by Congress in 1986 — only collects disciplinary actions that are longer than 30 days.

“According to the law that governs the NPDB, clinical privileges actions lasting 30 days or fewer are not reportable to the NPDB,” said a spokesperson for the agency which oversees the Data Bank, the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Johnson calls that a “loophole” she wants to close on a state level.

“HB 1998 is at the beginning of of the legislative process,” Johnson said in a statement. “As the Legislature moves on to committee hearing sand debates, the bill will go through many iterations. I will continue working with stakeholders and advocates on the bill language and implementation to ensure patients are protected and the Texas Medical Board has the necessary tools and direction to properly oversee physicians across the state.”