Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (Little Rock)

December 13, 2007 Thursday

Rules spared doctor background check New Arkansas criminal review wasn’t required for psychiatrist in drug case



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The Arkansas State Medical Board didn’t uncover a new doctor’s April drug arrest in Kansas because he already held an inactive Arkansas medical license and renewals do not require fresh criminal background checks, board officials said Wednesday.
Crossett police officers arrested Paul J. Loop, former psychiatrist at the Ashley County Medical Center, on Dec. 3 after they found crack cocaine hidden in a Tylenol bottle in his pocket.
He joined the Crossett hospital’s staff in late November after resigning Aug. 31 from the Colmery-O’Neil Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Topeka, Kan.
A Topeka police officer arrested Loop just before 8 a.m. on April 17 after he found the doctor in a car sleeping next to drug paraphernalia.
Russ Sword, CEO of the Ashley County Medical Center, was unaware that fresh criminal background checks are not required on renewals and questions the board’s process.
“Hospitals depend on the medical board,” Sword said. “If they don’t do anything, what is the point?” Loop, 46, graduated from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 1993. He first earned a state medical license in 1997, according to Peggy Cryer, executive secretary for the Arkansas State Medical Board.
The state board received an application to renew his license on Sept. 26.
Instead of a repeat background check, physicians renewing their licenses are only required to pay a fee and report whether they’ve been arrested or convicted of a crime. Affirmative answers can lead to a fresh background check.
Cryer said Loop reported that he had never been arrested on the renewal form.
Bill Trice, the state board’s attorney, said it’s logistically impossible to run background checks every time a doctor renews his license. There are about 10,000 doctors in Arkansas who must renew their licenses annually.
Also, the Arkansas State Police, the agency required by law to run the checks, does not have the capability to store fingerprints from year to year, Trice said.
“Can you see 10,000 physicians traipsing down to State Police headquarters to do a fingerprint card every year?” Trice said. “We aren’t trying to stop doctors from practicing.” Lisa Robin, senior vice president with the Federation of State Medical Boards, said no state requires fresh background checks during license renewal because of the logistical challenges.
In fact, only half the states in the country have authority by law to conduct background searches at all, Robin said.
Loop worked in Kansas under an Oklahoma medical license that is still valid through April of next year, said Lyle Kelsey, executive director of the Oklahoma Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision. The board there had not heard of any of Loop’s arrests until contacted by a reporter Wednesday.
Doctors are eligible to work at veterans hospitals under a license from any state, Kelsey said.
Loop’s old Kansas license expired in August 2005 for failure to renew, said Larry Buening, executive director of the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts.
Kelsey said the veteran’s hospital did not report Loop’s April arrest to the Oklahoma licensing board and he doesn’t know why.
Jim Gleisberg, a spokesman for the veterans hospital, said on Tuesday that hospital officials knew of Loop’s April arrest.
He said Loop continued to work at the veterans hospital, under a plan approved by the hospital staff, until he abruptly quit on Aug. 31.
Gleisberg said he isn’t sure why the April arrest wasn’t reported to a national database that medical boards commonly use to spot physicians who break the law.
“When you’re dealing with state licensing boards and the federal system, it gets more confusing than it does easy,” he said. He could not be reached for further explanation on Wednesday.
Kelsey said the nation’s reporting system for physicians is complex and full of exemptions – particularly if a doctor works for a federal hospital – that can allow doctors who run afoul of the law to slip through the cracks.
“This is the problem we’re all concerned about: If a hospital takes some internal action toward a doctor, and it’s not reportable, the doctor can leave and nobody ever knows about it,” he said. “It’s a constant thing we wrestle with in the industry: Who is reporting what?” Loop now faces felony drug possession and paraphernalia charges. He could face up to 40 years in prison and a $25,000 fine if convicted. The Arkansas State Medical Board has temporarily suspended his license, and could vote to revoke it at a February disciplinary hearing.