AUSTIN (KXAN) — A major bipartisan bill aimed at protecting Texans from dangerous doctors and reforming the Texas Medical Board passed the Senate on Wednesday and is closing in on becoming law. The bill is in direct response to our “Still Practicing” series of investigations.

It now heads back to the House for final review before going to the governor.

The bill would make lying on medical license applications a Class A misdemeanor, prevent doctors who’ve had their licenses revoked in other states from practicing in Texas and require the continuous monthly monitoring of all Texas doctors through the National Practitioner Data Bank — something licensees would pay for with a nominal fee.

HB 1998 will save lives in our state, protecting patients and healthcare professionals alike,” said Ware Wendell, the executive director of Texas Watch, a nonpartisan nonprofit that advocates for patient safety, shortly after the vote. “It gives the Texas Medical Board the tools it needs to fulfill its mission of safeguarding the public. We commend legislators for putting safety first and hope the governor will sign this vital legislation into law as soon as possible.”

On the last day the Senate could consider all bills, the chamber overwhelming passed the measure in a vote of 30-1.

The bill was filed by Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch, in response to our reporting. A series of KXAN investigations revealed doctors who had their medical licenses suspended or revoked in other states still practicing in Texas with no record of any prior out-of-state discipline on their public physician profiles, even though it’s required by law.

In some cases, patients died.

Last year, Johnson pledged to “do something” about the problems KXAN uncovered and brought to her attention.

Johnson’s bill was sponsored in the Senate by Republican Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood. Hall praised the bill as a way to increase transparency, especially when it comes to physician discipline records.

“Current statutes governing the Texas Medical Board is riddled with loopholes that allow physicians licensed in Texas, especially those transferring between hospitals or moving into Texas from other states, to avoid disclosing disciplinary actions,” said Hall on Wednesday as he moved the final passage of the bill. “When disciplinary actions are overlooked, patient safety, and, in some cases, their lives, are put at risk.”

Hall filed his own bill aimed at reforming the TMB. That bill passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Sen. Bob Hall moves final passage of HB 1998 on May 24 (Courtesy Texas Senate)

Bipartisan support

At a time when Republicans and Democrats don’t seem to agree on much, this bill was praised for its overwhelming bipartisan support and strong patient protection measures.

“Did you ever think you would see a [Rep.] Julie Johnson and [Sen.] Bob Hall bill come together?,” said Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, to laughter, as she presided over a Senate Health and Human Services Committee hearing last Friday.

“For the most part almost all of our bills are bipartisan and this bill highlights it,” said Kolkhorst. “That we put Texans first and do what’s right.”

Hall agreed.

“Set aside things we don’t agree on,” he said. “Don’t let them get in the way of things we do agree on.”

‘KXAN and their investigations’

Like in the Senate, HB 1998 overwhelmingly passed the House on May 12. It was unanimously voted out of the Senate committee with only minor changes.

During a hearing on May 19, KXAN’s reporting was cited twice for helping to expose the risks patients face from potentially dangerous doctors. Our reporting, advocates testified, brought to light the lack of information the public has when it comes to researching who’s treating themselves and their loved ones.

“Some of them high profile cases like Dr. Duntsch, also known as Dr. Death,” Lisa McGiffert with the Patient Safety Action Network testified. “But others are under the radar, like the 50 doctors that KXAN found who had their licenses suspended or revoked in other states.”

“We had 50 doctors that were just given a cursory, ‘OK, come on in,'” Hall said during the hearing. “And, it wasn’t until KXAN and their investigations [that we learned] hey, these guys came to Texas because they lost their license in another state.”

TMB President Dr. Sherif Zaafran, left, and TMB Executive Director Stephen Brint Carlton, right, outside the Texas Capitol. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

Texas Medical Board on board

The TMB cannot take a position on the bill but the board’s president, Dr. Sherif Zaafran, has publicly praised the measure.

If it had been law, the TMB would have “immediately” been alerted by the National Practitioner Data Bank that an emergency doctor was arrested on child pornography charges on Nov. 30. Instead, the board found out in March of this year from a news article, Zaafran said.

The doctor’s medical license was suspended on April 10, more than four months later, records show

“Of course, as soon as we found out, we acted on it. We immediately put forth the process of suspending his license,” said Zaafran. “It is a concern because even though he was arrested, he’s out on bail. He may potentially be seeing patients because he still has an active license.”

  • KXAN composite of TMB profile highlighting doctor's arrest (Courtesy TMB)
  • KXAN composite of TMB profile highlighting doctor's medical license suspension (Courtesy TMB)

“Isn’t that a problem that you’re finding out about this doctor’s arrest, not from the National Practitioner Data Bank, or law enforcement, or from the doctor, but from a news article?,” asked KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Zaafran. “And that is why we have actively, we’re not supposed to pursue legislation, but in this case, we felt it was very important to make sure our legislators understood this is a huge gap in us knowing or understanding if one of our licensees has committed harm that we need to know about that and act on it quickly. And that’s why we’re hoping that that bit of legislation, with the funding along with it, passes.”

Advocates, like Wendell, are also hoping the bill passes and ends up on the governor’s desk.

“You have to identify these dangerous doctors, keep them away from the public, keep them away from fellow physicians and nurses so they’re not harmed,” said Wendell. “This bill does that.”

As president of the TMB, Zaafran said it’s his “charge” to protect Texas citizens “in every fashion possible.” Constant monitoring of the NPBD, he said, would give the board the extra tools needed to do that.

“So, a lot of the concerns you had raised in the past about physicians out there potentially violating the law, and us not acting on it in time,” Zaafran said, “this would help take care of that by us knowing about it in real-time.”