In one of his last acts in office, recalled California Gov. Gray Davis signed a law requiring HMO employees who give medical advice over the telephone to be licensed medical professionals. Call-center operators still will be allowed to schedule appointments and ask basic questions about a person's condition, but the information must be passed to a nurse who will decide if and when a caller should see a physician. The new law stems from the 1996 case of Margaret Utterback, a 76-year-old woman who died from a ruptured aortic aneurysm after having repeatedly phoned Kaiser Permanente's call center in Hayward, Calif., where operators failed to tell her to go directly to the ER. Kaiser, which paid a $1 million fine for the incident, employs about 1,200 operators in its centralized Northern California call center. The operators use scripts written by medical professionals to evaluate callers' symptoms and conditions. Kaiser's call centers came under further scrutiny in 2002 for a now-discontinued pilot program that awarded bonuses to operators who limited physician appointments and spent less time on the phone with patients. -- by Laura B. Benko
Calif. law tightens standards for call centers
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