Wider records network weighed Md. licensing boards look at more online disclosure of data

February 12, 1997|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Maryland doctors who complain that the state is singling them out with proposed online lists of their disciplinary and malpractice records could have lots of company soon.

Public records at dozens of other professional licensing agencies -- from lawyers to morticians to barbers -- could receive similar treatment, say state officials.

"People will clean up their act if they know there's a lot more exposure," said Major F. Riddick, chief of staff for Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the muscle behind the Maryland Electronic Capital project, a rapidly growing network of state government Web sites.

"I think any of these areas would be good to explore -- disbarments, companies that violate environmental permits. People will either get in compliance or get out of the business," Riddick said.

Maryland Electronic Capital now features about 50 Web sites with information about the legislature and key agencies, allowing anyone with a computer, modem and Internet account to read the text of bills, for example, or find out how to get a fishing license.

With the governor pushing to get more information to the public electronically, the number of Web sites is expected to grow to about 250 by next year. Spurred by proposals at the state's Board of Physician Quality Assurance, which licenses and disciplines doctors, several other licensing agencies say they have discussed disclosing similar records online.

Although a computer bulletin board is the only outlet the physician board is considering, state officials say the information almost surely will go on the Internet.

Problem of access

"The problem with a bulletin board is not everyone has access to it," said Karl Damanda of the Department of Budget and Management, who is coordinating the Electronic Capital project. "I know that Major Riddick is looking for standardization in how the state provides information to citizens. It is highly likely that the doctors information will be Web-driven."

Many agencies require a written request when citizens want to look at licensing and disciplinary records, and some provide them by mail. Posting the information online would give citizens instant access.

"We're putting a Web page together and we've talked a little bit about whether to put our disciplinary records on it," said Donna Dorsey, executive director of the state board of nursing. "I don't think the board has any objections to doing it. We just need to ask what's the best way to get the information out there."

At the state psychologists board, "we certainly are looking at it as a possible model," said Joe Compton, board administrator, of the physician board plans.

"We're following the lead of the medical board -- I don't think there would be any objection to putting [disciplinary records] online," said Robert Duggan, chairman of the state acupuncture board.

Mario Francioli, commissioner of occupational and professional licensing for the state, said electronic access to licensing records 24 hours a day would make a difference to the public. His departments receive several hundred calls during business hours each day from consumers trying to find out if their home improvement contractor or accountant, for instance, is properly licensed or has faced sanctions.

At least one board shares the concerns voiced by physicians: that cursory listings of disciplinary and medical malpractice records might present an unfair career portrait that is confusing at minimum, an invasion of privacy at worst.

"We wouldn't want to get disciplinary information into everybody's hands because we don't know how it's going to be used," said Arthur Williams, administrator of the state board of dental examiners. His group receives about 850 complaints a year about dentists, hygienists and assistants, and it sanctions 15 to 20.

Deadbeat parents

"It could be detrimental to the profession by letting everyone have computer access to it [public disciplinary orders]," he said.

Riddick said the potential applications go well beyond the licensing boards. He envisions lists of persons who failed to make child support payments, or those who were convicted of drunken driving.

"I think the privacy issues will be something continually debated," Riddick said. "It's something we have to discuss with legislators."

Nothing prohibits posting public records online, according to a report prepared for the physicians board last month by its counsel, Assistant Attorney General Fred Ryland. And agencies and boards don't require legislative approval to go forward.

"This will be driven by two things: the time to do it and the squeaky wheels," said Damanda of the Department of Budget and Management. "A lot of it will depend on what the public wants to see online."

Glendening's overall goal is to make state records and more sophisticated services available by computer, Riddick said. By the end of the year, it will be possible for car owners to renew their auto tags and for real estate agents to renew their licenses online.

At this pace, the changes could be abrupt for some agencies. The nursing board recently installed a new database, and all licensing records on the state's 70,000 nurses are now on computer.

But at the Attorney Grievance Commission in Annapolis, reprimands, suspensions and disbarments of lawyers are still recorded on paper and index cards.

"We don't have an Internet in the office, but anything electronic is only a matter of time," said commission counsel Melvin Hirshman. "If they approach us and ask us if we want to put all our public discipline on there, yeah, it can be done."

A spokeswoman for the Maryland State Bar Association did not anticipate objections.

"I wouldn't think that would be a problem at all," said Janet Eveleth of the MSBA. "A number of people really don't know how to find an attorney. I think this would open up another avenue."

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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