Democratic Rep. Julie Johnson and Republican Sen. Bob Hall hold HB 1998. (Courtesy Rep. Julie Johnson)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Gov. Greg Abbott signed a major patient safety bill into law Tuesday, capping a bipartisan achievement that will reform the Texas Medical Board, protect patients from potentially dangerous doctors and, supporters say, save lives.

“This bill will absolutely save lives,” said Rep. Julie Johnson, D-Farmers Branch, who introduced HB 1998 in direct response to KXAN’s “Still Practicing” investigations. “I’m thrilled we got this passed.”

The new law addresses problems KXAN first uncovered. Five years after the infamous Texas surgeon, nicknamed “Dr. Death,” was sentenced to life in prison, we wanted to see if anything in the state had changed. Our investigation found at least 49 doctors practicing in Texas, despite having their medical licenses revoked in other states. We found no record of those out-of-state disciplinary actions listed on their Texas Medical Board physician profiles, even though it’s required by state law.

Rep. Julie Johnson holds her bill, HB 1998, now law. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

“The Texas Medical Board has completely failed in its job,” Johnson said more than a year ago at her law office in Dallas. “And, so, we’re going to have to step in and do it for them.”

At the time, Johnson pledged to “do something” about what we found. Her reform bill achieved overwhelming support from the TMB and lawmakers in both the House and Senate, where it was sponsored by Republican Sen. Bob Hall of Edgewood.

“I’m really grateful that Sen. Hall was willing to work with me,” Johnson said. “We had a lot of ideas in common about the need for transparency and the need for medical board reform.”

What the new law accomplishes

The new law gives the TMB the tools it needs to better protect patients from dangerous doctors. It also makes clear the board has an obligation to be transparent about physician discipline records.

HB 1998 was championed as much for its bipartisan support as it was its broad patient safety measures. So, what changes for patients here in Texas?

The new law will better protect Texas patients by:

  • Making it a Class A misdemeanor to lie on medical license applications.
  • Preventing doctors who’ve had licenses revoked, restricted or suspended for cause in other states from practicing in Texas.
  • Preventing doctors from practicing in Texas if they have been convicted, or had a deferred disposition, for a felony or misdemeanor crime involving moral turpitude.
  • Requiring physicians and applicants to be fingerprinted as part of a criminal background check with the Texas Department of Public Safety for a criminal background check.
  • Requiring all physicians be monitored monthly with the National Practitioner Data Bank — a confidential clearinghouse of all physician complaints, established by Congress and sealed to the public — which will be funded with fees physicians pay to the TMB. Johnson said the legislature will appropriate a greater percentage of those fees to cover the cost, which is $2.50 per doctor per year.
  • Mandating the TMB updates the public physician profiles on its website when it’s alerted to any disciplinary action within 10 business days.

“I’m thrilled. I’m thrilled. I’m just so happy,” said Johnson at the Capitol shortly after her bill passed both chambers and was sent to the governor. “I just want to thank KXAN … we got it done.”

A close up of the folder containing HB 1998, which regulates physicians and the TMB’s disciplinary authority. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

‘Your investigations were the catalyst’

After KXAN brought the problems we uncovered to Johnson, and other lawmakers, she worked with patient advocates, along with the Texas Medical Board and other physician groups, to craft legislation that would be impactful.

“Your investigations were the catalyst for this whole project,” Johnson said. “You uncovered some of the malfeasance that was happening and some of the inactions of the medical board that needed to be addressed. You communicated it, we learned of it … and now we have a law that’s going to make Texans safer.”

In April, KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant testified in front of lawmakers, including Hall — taking the findings of our “Still Practicing” investigations straight to the Senate floor.

“The Texas Medical Board’s goal is to ‘protect and enhance the public’s health safety and welfare’ but we’ve discovered, in case after case, the board has instead prioritized protecting physicians over patients,” Grant said.

“It wasn’t until KXAN and their investigations (did we learn), hey, these guys came to Texas because they lost their license in the other state,” Hall said during remarks to the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

“This particular problem was originally exposed by some really good investigative reporters from KXAN,” he added at another hearing. “We are very grateful to them for their findings.”

‘Update physician profiles in real time’

TMB president Dr. Sherif Zaafran said he is grateful to lawmakers for passing HB 1998. (KXAN Photo/Matt Grant)

If this law had been in place last year, 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, the president of the TMB, Dr. Sherif Zaafran, said.

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

“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.”

Asked about the new law, Zaafran told KXAN he’s “grateful” to lawmakers for the resources to better protect and inform patients.

“I’m grateful for the legislature granting us the authority and the funding to continuously monitor the National Practitioner Data Bank as well as fingerprinting all our licensees,” he said. “We can now rely on real time data to update physician profiles in real time and protect the public with up to date and current information on all our licensees.”

Last year, the TMB approved a rule change in response to our reporting. The new rule requires doctors to self-report criminal convictions, out-of-state disciplinary actions and medical malpractice claims within 30 days. Previously, it was every two years.

More than a decade after the TMB gave Dr. Christopher Duntsch, now known as “Dr. Death,” a license to practice medicine, the Dallas surgeon who helped stop him praised the new law.

“Great News!!,” Dr. Robert Henderson wrote in a text message. “Now we can work on getting other states to do the same. Thanks so much for all you have done!!”

The new law takes effect Sept. 1.