What happens to a doctor after they seriously injure or kill one of their patients because of malpractice? Or when they use their position of trust and power in order to sexually abuse those in their care?
One would think that these bad physicians would be barred from continuing to practice medicine. With lives in the balance, who would allow a doctor with these red flags to work for them?
Apparently, the U.S. government.
A recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal found that doctors had been hired by the Indian Health Service (IHS) despite multiple malpractice lawsuits, allegations of sexual abuse, or drug-related charges. Sadly, although not unpredictably, many of these troubled doctors continued to harm patients.
As the federal agency in charge of providing health services for more than 2.5 million American Indians and Alaska Natives, IHS has hiring guidelines that ought to prevent this from happening. But these safeguards don’t always work, and patients wind up suffering from medical malpractice at the hands of someone who should have been stopped.
Investigation Links History of Malpractice With 66 Deaths Under IHS Care
The Journal looked at federal lawsuits that named IHS doctors and found 163 malpractice cases where the government settled or lost. Since 2006, the Treasury paid out roughly $55 Million as a result of these alleged malpractice claims, and at least 66 people have died.
The investigation revealed that 1 out of 4 doctors involved in these nightmare situations had histories that should have raised serious alarm. According to IHS guidelines, physicians are supposed to be screened for medical-board sanctions and criminal convictions. Unfortunately, such basic inquiries were not always made by IHS managers, the Journal found.
The situation should shock patients, especially those who rely on the IHS for their care. The agency directly operates 24 hospitals, with an additional 22 hospitals managed by Tribes. Typically, these are small hospitals with less than 50 beds, often in remote areas.
Tori Kitcheyan, chairperson of the National Indian Board of Health and its Great Plains Area Representative, told the Journal, “Our tribal members are at the mercy of these federal health facilities… There is no other choice.”
Why Doctors With Histories of Malpractice Continue to Work for IHS
It is not easy for IHS hospitals to attract and retain physicians — locations tend to be isolated, and the pay is lower than it would be at a private practice. In order to fill the positions, hiring managers are sometimes stuck choosing between candidates they would never hire in a perfect world.
Compounding the problem is that IHS hospitals are attractive to doctors with a history of malpractice. Unlike private practice, IHS doctors do not need to carry their own insurance coverage, which can be unaffordable for those with multiple malpractice claims against them. And, in most cases, the government is stuck paying for malpractice claims, not the doctors.
Regardless of the challenges, IHS is failing by its own standards to provide dependable care for those who need it. Of the 171 doctors identified in the lawsuits, the Journal found:
- 3 with criminal convictions
- 18 with sanctioned/revoked medical licenses
- 33 with multiple malpractice claims against them
When a patient walks into a hospital, they assume that everyone working there has a safe record of conduct. With no way to find out for themselves, patients depend on the healthcare system to weed out bad actors.
By giving questionable physicians multiple chances, the IHS is putting people in harm’s way.
IHS Officials Turn Blind Eye to Pedophile Pediatrician’s Reign of Terror
Earlier this year, Stanley Patrick Weber was found guilty of sexually abusing young boys under his care at the IHS hospital in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Weber was also found guilty last year for abusing 2 more boys at a government hospital in Montana before he was hired at Pine Ridge.
With more transparency in the system, Weber would likely have been in prison instead of preying on patients. He continued his bad behavior for over two decades before he was finally forced to resign in 2016.
According to a report from the Journal and Frontline, officials throughout IHS repeatedly ignored warning signs from Weber’s colleagues. Would-be whistleblowers were silenced, and the predator pediatrician was simply moved from one reservation to another.
After the verdict was announced, U.S. Attorney Ron Parsons told the Journal that, “Stanley Patrick Weber was a walking and talking nightmare for the Pine Ridge reservation and the people who live there.”
The agency has promised to make changes, but it won’t be easy. As the recent investigation shows, the current system lacks practical safeguards to keep bad doctors out. And these problems are hardly confined to the IHS.
Every day in America, patient’s lives are changed forever by medical malpractice. Whether it is failure to diagnose, a birth injury, or a preventable medical error that causes injury, patients have to be careful to make sure they have the legal support they need.