CHICAGO (AP) -- The Illinois government agency that looks into complaints against doctors announced it will lay off investigators starting Tuesday and warned of yearlong delays in physician licensing because the Legislature didn't act to bail out the medical watchdog unit.
In a letter being sent to doctors Thursday, officials from Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation pin the blame on the Illinois State Medical Society for lobbying against legislation to transfer $9.6 million to keep the program going. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter on Wednesday.
The letter details "calamitous consequences," including "delays between 12 and 18 months to process a medical license and severe constraints to the Department's ability to prosecute physicians who pose a risk to the health and safety of Illinois citizens."
The letter is signed by department Director Jay Stewart and Acting Secretary Manuel Flores. "As a direct result of (the medical society's) actions, the layoffs will occur," the letter says.
Medical society president Dr. William Werner said the legislation that stalled in the just-finished lame duck session required borrowing against future money collected by the fund that supports the medical watchdog unit. He said it's time to restore money that was raided from the fund by previous legislatures.
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 department has proposed raising doctor licensing fees, but that idea has been rebuffed by the doctors group.
"Our position is simple," Werner said in a written statement. "Return the monies that were taken from the Fund and do not borrow against the Fund's future revenue to pay current obligations."
Eighteen positions are targeted for elimination, including more than half of the investigators whose work ultimately protects patients from bad doctors and three people who process license applications.
A measure passed the Senate, but the House failed to act on it during the lame duck session. A new Legislature was sworn in Wednesday and new bills would have to be introduced to prevent layoffs.
The Illinois Senate convenes Thursday, but has no other days scheduled until February, said Rikeesha Phelon, a spokeswoman for Senate President John Cullerton.
"With one day left in session, it would be difficult to accomplish," Phelon said. A spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan didn't immediately return a phone message from The Associated Press.
Each year, the department processes nearly 2,600 applications from new doctors for licenses and 2,300 applications from medical residents for temporary licenses. Every three years, the department renews nearly 46,000 licenses for doctors.
"Physicians' current licenses will almost certainly expire before a renewal can be processed. It is unlawful for anyone to provide medical services without holding a valid medical license," the letter states. "You may wish to contact your employer, affiliated hospital(s), and your insurance company to make the necessary preparations in advance of the lengthy licensing delays."
A delay in licensing for medical residents will hurt hospital training programs, said Dr. Joshua Goldstein, associate dean for graduate medical education for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
"The inability to secure medical licenses for our residents and fellows in a timely fashion from the IDFPR will have a significant negative impact on our training programs and on patient care at the hospitals in which our residents and fellows train," Goldstein said in an email. "This is true not only for Northwestern and its affiliates but for every hospital in the state of Illinois that trains residents and fellows."
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.
AP Medical Writer Carla K. Johnson can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/CarlaKJohnson.