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Florida has holes in health professionals' records, thanks to lawmakers

After three years in a federal penitentiary, dentist David Goldston is back in practice in Polk City.

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He'll have to fix a lot of teeth to pay off $2 million in tax-fraud penalties, but at least he doesn't have to worry about losing his state dental license. He didn't get even a slap on the wrist from the Health Department or Board of Dentistry.

In fact, there is no indication that they are even aware of Goldston's federal conviction.

That's not uncommon, a Health News Florida investigation found. Criminal convictions of health professionals often fly under the state's radar.

Dennis Brager, a California tax lawyer who recently studied and wrote about the Goldston case, was surprised to hear that the dentist is back in active practice. "I know in California if you're convicted, they lift your license," Brager said.

But this is Florida. The rules are different here.

The Health Department and the boards that it supports are supposed to protect the public from dishonest and incompetent practitioners. It has a website where consumers can look up licensees and check their backgrounds.

But that website doesn't mention arrests, except in rare cases when an emergency suspension order is issued. As a result, the arrest can go unlisted for years, if a case drags on that long.

Even after a case ends with a conviction, the Health Department doesn't always find out. Licenses can be listed as "clear/active" even as their owners serve prison time or felony probation.

The Health Department says it is not at fault, that it is carrying out the law as the Legislature wrote it. In the late 1990s, lawmakers authorized the agency to do criminal background checks on several types of health professionals, but not most.

Longtime legislators and their staffs — even some who retired — said they couldn't recall passage of the law and why it was done that way.

Even when a crime and court case make headlines, the Health Department sometimes remains oblivious. The Goldston case, for example, made news in at least two state newspapers.

Health News Florida decided to pick two types of professionals who aren't covered under the background-check law and see what could be found at no charge, just using state search sites and Google. A check of dentists and allied mental-health fields turned up nine cases in which licensees' criminal convictions were not mentioned on their license records.

They include three therapists addicted to cocaine or prescription drugs; two men accused of sex crimes with minors; two tax evaders; and two thieves. Four served time in jail; two are still there.

On the Health Department website, none of those convictions is mentioned. Most of the offenders' licenses are marked "clear/active" with no past discipline and no pending complaints.

Attorneys familiar with Florida laws governing the health professions say the Health Department is authorized to do criminal background checks only on nurses, medical and osteopathic physicians, chiropractors and podiatrists. Not mentioned are dentists and 29 others, including pharmacists, optometrists, acupuncturists, midwives and psychologists.

And both Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders are rolling back rules and regulations.

Florida has holes in health professionals' records, thanks to lawmakers 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 9:42pm]

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