March 1, 2016

The Illinois Department of Financial & Professional Regulation (the Department), Division of Professional Regulation (the Division), regulates the licenses of numerous professionals in the health care fields, including physicians, nurses, nursing home administrators, and many others. For health care professionals facing an investigation, hearing, or potential disciplinary action related to alleged misconduct, the Division’s process can seem quite daunting and confusing. The information provided below, along with the advice of experienced legal counsel, can help you navigate this twisting path.

Notifications and Investigations

Most disciplinary actions are for the overly broad and subjective reason of “unethical or unprofessional conduct.” Individuals can come to the Division’s attention through complaints by dissatisfied patients, co-workers, or supervisors, or by referrals from other regulatory bodies such as the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) or the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services (IDHFS).

Although logic and efficiency dictate that the Division investigate any complaints it receives before alleging the licensed professional might have violated applicable regulations, that is not always the case. More often than not, the “investigation” begins with the filing of a notice to the licensee that the Division received a complaint, and the notice includes a request that the licensee appear at an informal conference. The Division sends such notices to the licensee’s home, as that is the address the Division has on file. Occasionally, licensees will be visited by an investigator at the place of business; this is usually done only when the state budget allows for such expenditures.

If this happens, then do not panic. For reasons detailed below, with the help of experienced counsel, many informal conferences result in the Division concluding that the licensee did nothing wrong.

There are numerous occasions when reporting to the Division is mandatory. For example, IDPH must report the names and license numbers of nursing home administrators when it cites certain deficiencies in a nursing home. Nurses who are administrators or officers of a health facility must report a nurse impaired by drugs or alcohol or who possesses, uses, or distributes drugs. IDHFS reports when physicians enter into integrity agreements or opt out of the Medical Assistance Program. If a health care licensee is accused of a sex crime, the prosecutor notifies the Division and the practitioner can only practice with a chaperone.

Disciplinary Conferences and Hearings

If the Division schedules an informal disciplinary conference, the licensee should consider hiring a lawyer. If the Division does not schedule an informal conference, then the licensee should ask the Division to do so. These conferences are typically handled by a Division attorney and a member of the relevant licensing board (the latter of whom usually takes the lead in asking questions and making the final decisions). 

Informal disciplinary conferences generally take the place of an investigation and offer an excellent opportunity for the licensee to tell his or her side of the story. The board members who attend these conferences are typically in the same profession as the licensee (although not necessarily from the same kind of work environment), so they understand the practices, processes, and pressures facing the individuals who appear before them. The vast majority of such conferences end with a recommendation that no further action be taken. 

A hearing is a far more formal process, conducted by an administrative law judge (ALJ) with a court reporter present and, generally, conducted according the rules of evidence. Again, the licensee can and should be represented by counsel. One or more members of the relevant board may be present and may participate by questioning witnesses. The ALJ prepares a report that is then reviewed by a committee of board members before it goes to the director of the Department for a final order.

Disciplinary Actions

Activities that generate disciplinary actions include sister-state discipline, drug/alcohol issues, failures related to treatment, and bureaucratic issues. In looking at recent disciplinary actions reported over a seven-month period on the Division’s website, physicians were disciplined for sister-state discipline 58 times, for drug/alcohol transgressions 20 times, treatment problems 50 times and bureaucratic issues 40 times. Nurses were disciplined for sister-state discipline 92 times, drug/alcohol transgressions 88 times, treatment problems 21 times and bureaucratic issues 46 times. Only one nursing home administrator — one on a temporary license, at that — was disciplined for failure to report abuse in a timely manner.

Disciplinary actions can include reprimand, additional continuing education hours, inservices, probation (for a defined or indefinite period), restrictions, quality assurance audits, fines, suspension, refusal to renew, placement in permanent inactive status, or termination. The Division may also place a letter in a licensee’s file, but the letter is not considered discipline — as such, these letters do not appear on the Division’s website. These letters essentially tell the licensee to avoid doing whatever brought them to the attention of the Division in the first place. The Division can use such letters as a basis for progressive discipline if the licensee comes to the Division’s attention for a similar reason in the future.

Disciplinary actions in one state affect licensure status in other states. They also may affect a licensee’s ability to participate in the Medicaid and Medicare programs and to prescribe controlled substances. Even an investigation that does not result in a penalty must on some occasions be reported, and failure to do so may result in further disciplinary action. 

Protect Your Privileges! 

Remember, holding a professional license is a privilege, not a right. Such a privilege is always subject to strict scrutiny and can be restricted as necessary to assure that the public are not harmed in any way. Needless to say, seeking out knowledgeable counsel is always recommended.

For more information about licensure actions against health care professionals, please contact your Much Shelist attorney.

This article contains material of general interest and should not be construed as legal advice or a legal opinion on any specific facts or circumstances. Under applicable rules of professional conduct, this content may be regarded as attorney advertising.