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Medical residents may not get licenses in time

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Updated: March 10, 2013 6:09AM

A fight over funding for a state regulatory agency could strain academic medical centers this summer if there’s a delay in roughly 2,800 students getting the license necessary to work as medical residents.

A $9.6 million budget gap forced the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation — which licenses and disciplines doctors — to lay off 18 of its 26 medical unit employees in January. Two competing bills in the state Legislature aim to fill the gap, and pit House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and the department against the Illinois State Medical Society.

If an agreement can’t be reached to allow rehiring staff by spring, graduating medical students won’t get their temporary licenses in time to begin their medical residencies by early July, department spokeswoman Sue Hofer said.

Since the layoffs, licenses for new doctors are taking six months instead of 10 to 15 days and up to 18 months to handle the renewal of physicians’ licenses in 2014. The department renews every three years almost 46,000 licenses for doctors.

After they are matched with a hospital in March, graduating medical school students typically have about three months to get their medical licenses so they can be an incoming resident. Residency programs would be severely short-staffed if incoming residents were unable to get their temporary license, said Barry Kamin, executive director of graduate medical education at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine University.

Dr. Cathy Dimou, president of the medical staff at Rush University Medical Center, agreed that it would be “devastating” for medical residents as well as a stress for staffing hospitals, because many of the new doctors who need to apply for a license this year cannot be guaranteed that their license will be processed in time to start work.

“Anyone that we would need to hire to help pick up that slack may be in the same situation if they are new graduates who are unable to obtain a license. The problem will worsen in 2014 when all physician licenses are up for renewal “ Dimou said. “Obviously, the more staff is stressed to take care of the patients, the more care might suffer, because people wouldn’t have the appropriate staff to take care of patients.”

Just as troubling, critics of IDFPR said, is the lack of adequate staff to do a proper job of disciplining doctors. Hofer blames that on the workload increasing while its main source of funding — doctors’ licensing fees — has remained the same since 1987.

Two bills are pending in the Illinois General Assembly to try to address these problems.

House Bill 193, which was sponsored by Madigan and is supported by IDFPR, would borrow $6.6 million from the state’s local government tax and increase physician license fees to $750 for three-year license. Hofer said the money would be repaid with doctors’ fees to be collected in 2014 and 2015.

But the Illinois State Medical Society and others say they’re skeptical that the funds will actually be replaced and doctors don’t see why they’re footing the bill for fixing the deficit, after years of funds for IDFPR being swept out to finance other state programs.

The society instead supports a bill that would increase physician license fees by 67 percent to stabilize operations of the IDFPR’s medical unit.

Introduced by Rep. Chad Hays (R-Danville), House Bill 1001 calls for increasing physician fees to $500 for a three-year license (up from $300) and transferring $9.6 million from the state’s general fund into the medical disciplinary fund.

Hays argues that the bill is enough to fix the problem the budget issues that the medical society argues were caused by the state redirecting medical license fees for other purposes.

A date had not been set for Madigan’s or Hays’ bill as of Thursday.

Dimou, who says the medical staff at Rush supports House Bill 193, said, “we would support any bill that passes because it’s such a crisis.”

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