In Florida, the Department of Health is responsible for the licensure, investigation, and prosecution of health care practitioners. Most categories of practitioners are regulated by a specific Board within the Department, such as the Board of Medicine for medical doctors and the Board of Nursing for nurses. When the Department is investigating a licensee, a complaint will be sent by certified mail to the address on file with the Department. The complaint will state the alleged statutory violations, outline the alleged facts giving rise to the complaint, and indicate how the investigation was initiated. The Department may also request an interview or other information from the licensee.
The receipt of a complaint is serious. It is essential that the target of the investigation know exactly how to react. The appropriate reaction varies depending on the facts alleged in the complaint and the practitioner’s specific circumstances, including past discipline and the likelihood of a looming civil malpractice suit.
How the practitioner responds to the complaint often dictates how the remainder of the disciplinary process will play out. Upon receipt of a complaint, the subject of the investigation has the right to submit a written response. The decision to submit a response must be made after careful consideration and analysis of the complaint. There may be strategic reasons to submit a fine tuned, thorough and persuasive response. Or it may be best to refrain from submitting a response altogether. If the practitioner decides to respond, the timing of the submission also greatly matters. In general, all licensees have at least 20 days from receipt of the complaint, while physicians and osteopathic physicians have 45 days to submit a response. However, the practitioner may secure an additional opportunity to respond by properly requesting a copy of the complete investigative file. This option may be advisable if the licensee does not have adequate information to respond initially. The timing of submitting the response must be made strategically after a thorough analysis of the facts and circumstances because the response has serious and immediate implications on how the investigation will be handled and ultimately on the outcome of the complaint.
In deciding how to respond to a complaint, the practitioner must be educated and advised as to the complex legal ramifications of the disciplinary process. For instance, the complaint can become part of the practitioner’s permanent record, including the Practitioner Profile located on the Department’s website. The inclusion of a complaint on the Practitioner Profile allows the public to easily view that the practitioner has been disciplined and even provides the public with a link to the actual complaint and related sanctions. Discipline also affects the practitioner’s professional affiliations, relationships with health insurance companies and Medicare/Medicaid, and may trigger an obligation to report to other state agencies. The practitioner may also be required to report the discipline to his or her malpractice insurance carrier, which can result in higher premiums or termination of coverage. Discipline can also affect the practitioner’s ability to maintain or apply for hospital staff privileges or maintain employment with their practice group.
In sum, licensed health care practitioners need to be aware of how the Florida Department of Health investigation and complaint process works. How complaints are handled and responded to from their inception affects, and often determines, the severity of the outcome. Practitioners must avoid taking this process lightly. The consequences of failing to appropriately respond to a complaint can have permanent adverse implications on the practitioner’s license and livelihood. If you have received a complaint, or have any concerns or questions regarding the Department of Health disciplinary process, you should immediately speak with an experience healthcare attorney.