State investigators who look into complaints against Illinois doctors are being warned that layoffs will start in January unless the Legislature raises doctor licensing fees.
A spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation said staff members were informed about the layoffs Thursday afternoon. Eighteen positions are targeted for elimination, including more than half the investigators whose work ultimately protects patients from bad doctors.
Investigators review the allegations from the public, law enforcement and other states of doctor sexual misconduct, alcoholism and malpractice. They build cases that can lead to fines and reprimands, and sometimes cause doctors to lose their licenses.
Department spokeswoman Susan Hofer said doubling the load on staffers would slow down investigations and prosecutions of doctor misconduct. The layoffs would reduce the medical investigations unit from 26 staffed positions to eight, a reduction of about 70 percent.
Salaries in the watchdog unit are funded entirely from the license fees doctors pay. No tax dollars are involved. Doctors now pay what amounts to $100 a year to be licensed. Fees haven't increased since 1987, according to information the department has shared with key lawmakers.
The state licensing agency has been seeking an increase in physician licensing fees for five years without result. Meanwhile, new laws have added to the unit's workload, such as a law requiring registered sex offenders to lose their medical licenses and a law requiring a searchable online database where patients can look up doctors' disciplinary records.
Illinois doctors pay less to renew their licenses than many other professions, according to a department presentation shared with lawmakers. Lawyers pay an annualized fee of $342 to renew a license in Illinois. Acupuncturists pay $250. Optometrists pay $200.
The state's Medical Practice Act, the law regulating doctors and setting their licensing fees, expires at the end of the year. The Legislature normally considers renewing licensing acts after the department and the licensed group — in this case doctors — come to an agreement. But agreement has been elusive on doctor license fees.
Agency officials have been meeting with lawmakers to ask for action during the veto session later this month. The agency also wants lawmakers to OK using money from other licensing units as a stopgap to allow the watchdog unit to keep operating until new fees begin.
Rep. Michael Zalewski, a Riverside Democrat, has been working with the Illinois State Medical Society and the department. He said doctors oppose the fee increase because they are concerned that the licensing fees will be tapped by the Legislature to cover other expenses, as they have in the past.
The medical society has "a long history in the General Assembly and they've built some relationships," Zalewski said. "It's difficult to say whether a fee increase would pass over their objections ... It would be a lot easier if we could get an agreed upon bill."
Dr. Eldon Trame, president-elect of the Illinois State Medical Society said in a statement: "It is unfortunate that the Illinois General Assembly previously raided $8.9 million from the Medical Disciplinary Fund. Because of this action, the department now faces an immediate funding shortfall that should have been avoided."
Hofer said there have been no sweeps under Gov. Pat Quinn's administration, "and only one during the previous governor's terms."
The medical unit's investigations lead to dozens of disciplinary actions against physicians each month. Recent cases include:
—A Moline doctor whose license was suspended after police arrested him and charged him with criminal sexual assault of two patients.
—A Decatur doctor's license was suspended for failing to detect damage to a patient's inner ear during a procedure and failing to report a malpractice settlement in the case, as required.
—A suburban Chicago doctor was placed on probation for a year for prescribing controlled substances for family members and in excessive quantities to some patients.
—Another suburban Chicago doctor was put on probation for a year and fined $2,000 for allowing unlicensed employees to sell a prescription medication for growing longer eyelashes at a mall kiosk.
"I'm hoping layoffs can be avoided and an agreement can be reached with the medical society," said Sen. Heather Steans, a Chicago Democrat and chair of the Senate appropriations committee.