Responding to criticism brought last week, the president of the state Board of Medical Examiners told Gov. Jim Gibbons and Nevada lawmakers Monday that the regulatory agency is diligently investigating doctors' culpability in the hepatitis C outbreak.
The medical board's Investigations Division is " vigorously, urgently and professionally pursuing its investigation ... following every lead, interviewing every witness that will talk to them and cooperating fully with law enforcement," said a letter signed by board President Javaid Anwar.
His letter was a response to a missive sent Thursday by Gibbons and four lawmakers who contended there was a lack of communication with new board members regarding the investigation involving unsafe medical practices at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada.
Gibbons and the legislators also said the medical board's executive director, Tony Clark, had been unwilling to "vigorously handle the matter."
He did not write the letter, but Anwar said Monday he checked its content and signed it before it was sent to Gibbons, Sens. Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, Randolph Townsend, R-Reno, and Joe Heck, R-Henderson, and Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno.
The letter said that the medical board has scheduled a Wednesday meeting with its five adjudicating members to discuss the replacement of Donald Baepler as chair overseeing the hepatitis C investigation. Baepler died May 25.
Health officials have linked seven cases of hepatitis to the Endoscopy Center's Shadow Lane facility and continue investigating hundreds of other clinic patients who have tested positive for the blood-borne disease. Last month, the Southern Nevada Health District announced that 77 patients with hepatitis C might have contracted their disease at the clinic.
Anwar, who has recused himself from matters concerning the hepatitis C outbreak because of a relationship with the center's majority owner, Dr. Dipak Desai, said in a telephone interview that the medical board is being unfairly targeted because it licenses physicians.
On Monday, Anwar defended Tony Clark, the medical board's executive director, and the board's investigation.
The letter said that Clark "has been actively pushing the board's investigative process since the board was first made aware of this crisis situation on Feb. 28.''
The letter also said that the three board members brought on to replace Anwar and two other board members who resigned because of business relationships with Desai cannot yet receive evidence in the case. "Triers of fact must not be tainted or receive any evidence or information outside the judicial, or in this case, quasi-judicial, hearing process.
"As evidence is obtained and developed, additional formal disciplinary complaints will be filed against other licensees involved with Endoscopy Center," the letter said, noting the process has been "slowed considerably" since law enforcement agencies have confiscated the clinic's records.
Heck said the letter answered most of his concerns about the medical board's investigation. He said the agency needs to do a better public relations campaign.
"The board is progressing, but none of this information is being made public,'' he said. "Everybody needs an update. We understand there is due process and the medical board has to act accordingly, but our constituents, those impacted by this, want answers.''
Leslie disagreed with the medical board's response that it has acted diligently.
Leslie is still calling for an independent investigator.
"This pace has absolutely produced nothing,'' she said Monday. "I don't think we're going to get anywhere with them. ... The medical board has made it quite clear that it is going to conduct its investigation the way it wants to and at its own pace.''
Gibbons' office said it had yet to see Anwar's response.
"We believe there is a clear need for action on this issue by the board, and we hope the letter ... outlines the steps the board plans to take to protect public health and restore public faith in the healthcare system of Nevada," Gibbons' press secretary, Ben Kieckhefer, said in an e-mail.
An investigation by health authorities that began in early January led to the largest patient notification of its kind in U.S. history. About 50,000 former patients of the Shadow Lane facility are being urged to get tested for hepatitis and HIV. About 400 people have tested positive for hepatitis.
Investigators have blamed the infections on unsafe injection practices by the nurse anesthetists, including reusing syringes and single-use vials of anesthesia.
Contact reporter Annette Wells at email@example.com or 702-383-0283.