April 7, 2003 – Members of the board that regulates the medical profession in the Virgin Islands vigorously expressed their objections to senators on Monday about legislation passed by the 24th Legislature in its final session that makes certain doctors eligible for permanent licensing without meeting previously set standards.
Appearing before the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, the Board of Medical Examiners members decried the amendment sponsored by Sen. Lorraine Berry that the Senate approved along with numerous others on Dec. 23. Gov. Charles W. Turnbull signed the measure into law.
Sen. Douglas E. Canton, committee chair, said he will hold a similar hearing on St. Croix next Monday, when a bill to repeal the amendment is expected to be presented.
Berry's amendment states that the board shall waive examination and certification requirements for the issuance of a permanent, unrestricted license to a physician who has either:
– Obtained a special five-year "unrestricted license" and worked for the government for that licensure period, or
– Obtained annual "institutional licenses" for any five consecutive years since Jan. 1, 1994.
In order to receive a special unrestricted license, physicians must be licensed elsewhere in the United States and either nationally board-certified in their specialty or board-eligible. Institutional licenses are given on a year-to-year basis to physicians who are not board certified or are not eligible to take their board exams because they have not completed the required training, such as a residency.
Berry's amendment, one of many attached to a "Christmas tree bill" in the Senate's final session last year, was to legislation enacted in 1998 providing for the creation in collaboration with the licensing board and local medical officials of a special unrestricted license. The intent of that measure was to aid in the recruiting of qualified physicians with specialties needed in the territory's hospitals. A physician who is granted a five-year special unrestricted license and works for the government for those five years then becomes eligible for a permanent license.
Canton said he called the hearing to clear up controversy over the issue of whether Dr. Luis Collazo, a former neonatologist at Roy L. Schneider Hospital, should have a permanent license to practice medicine.
Dr. Thelma Ruth Watson, board chair, told the committee the 1998 law "has been working well, and there was no need to change it in an attempt to satisfy one physician who has been given every opportunity by the board of medical licensure to obtain his medical license." Her reference was to Collazo.
Berry had said in January, when criticism of the amendment surfaced, that she did not believe that her measure would allow uncertified doctors to get a permanent license. Since Collazo was the island's only neonatologist — a pediatrician specializing in the care of newborns — "I don't know why they would not want to grant this man a license," she said then.
The committee learned on Monday, however, that Collazo resigned from his RLS staff position on Feb. 9, 2001, and that at the time he possessed a temporary institutional license which limited his practice of medicine to the government facilities. However, the examiners said, Collazo operated a private practice in violation of the law.
Watson told the committee that Collazo ignored several directives from the board to discontinue his private practice. "Practicing without an authorized license represents great potential liability to the board, the government and the people of this territory," she said.
Repeating language in a Jan. 24 letter the board sent to legislators, Watson also said it was a "dangerous precedent" for the Senate to amend laws for individuals, and now the hospitals and the Health Department are faced with unintended consequences as a result. She urged the Senate to repeal Berry's amendment.
Berry told her colleagues: "There seems to be contradictions in the interpretation of the law. There seems to be a misconception that Dr. Collazo is a friend of mine. I met the man once when he came into my office." She said it was her constituents who brought the matter of Collazo's temporary status to her attention last year.
She also told the board on Monday that she had never before observed it to be so vocal, with its members even visiting talk shows to state their displeasure. "I have not heard the board voice outrage over the fact that doctors aren't accepting insurance from our employees," she said, "or voicing their displeasure at our residents leaving the island and going to the mainland for medical care."
Canton said the subject will be air further next Monday on St. Croix. "This is our health-care system," he said, "and if something has been wrong with it for five, 10 or even 15 years, we must be able to work together collaboratively to fix it."
Sen. Almando "Rocky" Liburd, who sponsored the 1998 legislation, said on Monday that "at the time, I felt the law was the right thing to do, and this community is better off because of it." Liburd and Sen. Raymond "Usie" Richards are expected to present legislation repealing the amendment at Monday's hearing.
Berry said later by telephone that she feels the 1998 law is being misrepresented. "When my constituents came to me and told me of the situation, they said he [Collazo] was being taken advantage of," she said. "I felt that Dr. Collazo needed to be 'grandfathered' in. He was in charge of the neonatal clinic at the hospital for six years. He has unrestricted licenses in Michigan and Puerto Rico, but they don't have reciprocity here."
Berry pointed out that the board has granted permanent licenses under the new law to two other physicians.
If the Senate is going to repeal her amendment, she said, it should also repeal the 1998 law. "If you want all physicians to have to take an exam regardless of the 1998 law, you have to repeal that law as well," she said.
Berry also said the Senate has "a right to look into these boards carefully, to be sure they aren't using elitist policies to see who is going to get licenses. We have had those problems in the past."
Committee members present were Sens. Berry, Canton, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, Emmett Hansen II, Luther Renee and Richards. Sen. Norman Jn Baptiste was absent. Sen. Celestino A. White Sr., who is not a committee member, also attended.
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