Ensign enters medical fray

WASHINGTON -- Saying that politics is overtaking medicine in the handling of the hepatitis health scare, Sen. John Ensign said Friday he has asked Gov. Jim Gibbons to consider alternatives to forcing three doctors off the state Board of Medical Examiners.

Ensign said he has suggested that Gibbons look into appointing an interim medical committee to handle matters involving the Endoscopy Clinic of Southern Nevada and its majority owner, Dr. Dipak Desai.

The governor's demand that three doctors with professional and personal ties to Desai quit the board has sparked a new controversy, separate from the findings that at least seven cases of hepatitis C were linked to unsanitary procedures at Desai-operated clinics.

Three doctors -- Daniel McBride, Sohail Anjum and Javaid Anwar -- have said they will recuse themselves from matters involving Desai and the clinics. Gibbons said a recusal was not enough.

McBride has said he will not step down. Gibbons has said he would take legal action to remove the board members if they don't quit voluntarily.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., this week said that he disagreed with Gibbons and that recusals should be sufficient. Ensign, a Republican, said he is personal friends with McBride and confirmed he also has urged the doctor not to step off the nine-member board.

In a telephone interview, Ensign called for a time out.

"Unfortunately it has gotten to the realm of politics instead of medicine," he said. "Everybody is looking to point fingers and blame. The bottom line is some people did some bad things and that is just it.

"It is completely unacceptable to do what these folks were doing and it needs to be corrected, but all the political grandstanding that all the various people are doing are not helping matters at all," he said.

Ensign would not say specifically who he believed was grandstanding. He did reserve criticism for "trial lawyers who are foaming at the mouth over how much money they can make" from the crisis.

Although he disagreed with Gibbons' call for the three board members to quit, Ensign said he would not criticize the governor, saying Gibbons "has to do what he thinks is right."

Ensign said he spoke with the governor on Tuesday. Gibbons told him he did not think he was doing anything that would hurt the reputations of the board members, but Ensign said their removal would fuel "the public perception that these people have done something wrong."

"I think recusals were the right thing to do," Ensign said.

Despite Ensign's call, Gibbons "has not backed off his position he would like the resignations of Dr. McBride and the other two doctors, with all respect to Senator Ensign," his spokesman, Ben Kieckhefer, said Friday.

"It is the responsibility of this board to ensure the public can trust it to make important decisions necessary about the state of health care in Nevada," Kieckhefer said.

Ensign said he did not know Anjum and Anwar, but he said McBride "is one of the most honest, decent people I know. There is no question in my mind. I know him extremely well, and he is one of the most ethical people I have met."

Ensign also defended McBride's membership on the medical board and a malpractice investigations subcommittee at the same time he was chairman of a malpractice insurance company that covers 1,500 doctors in the state. The company vigorously fights paying out medical claims by former patients of doctors.

McBride notified colleagues he was resigning from the chairmanship of the Nevada Mutual Insurance Co., as of Wednesday, as a newspaper story on the matter was being prepared and his role was drawing criticism from Nevada legislators and others.

Ensign said McBride's position with the insurance firm "on the surface looks bad" but was "fully disclosed," and Ensign maintained that it did not put McBride in a conflict.

"I think this whole thing has been blown out of proportion," Ensign said. "People are looking for a scapegoat."

Medical board member Jean Stoess said Friday, however, that she never knew about McBride's relationship with the malpractice insurance company and that she does "not think it was common knowledge." She also said McBride did the right thing in stepping down from his post as the company's chairman.

Ensign, a veterinarian by training, further said that roughing up medical board members would discourage others from service.

"There is a big problem with public service today and this just makes it worse," he said. Serving on state boards "is a pain in the rear end. You lose money and it costs you professionally, but they do it because they care about their profession.

"Why would you want to subject yourself to that kind of risk?"

Review-Journal writer Paul Harasim contributed to this report. Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault@stephensmedia.com or (202) 783-1760.