Impotent oversight

The discovery of a disease outbreak and its link to reckless practices at a local clinic are prime examples of the legitimacy of government regulation in matters of public health and safety. If a business has already harmed citizens and represents an imminent threat to others, it is appropriate for authorities to intervene, investigate and, in extreme circumstances, shut down a facility.

What has unfolded in the Las Vegas Valley over the past week certainly qualifies as extreme. The Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada’s habitual re-use of syringes and vials infected six people with hepatitis C, prompting the largest patient notification campaign of its kind — some 40,000 people who underwent procedures at the clinic over a four-year period now need to be tested for hepatitis B, hepatitis C and the virus that causes AIDS.

Officials have closed the clinic, along with four other affiliated practices.

The cities of Las Vegas, Henderson and North Las Vegas and Clark County’s government moved swiftly to suspend the business licenses of these offices.

In contrast, the state’s vast medical regulatory structure has been alarmingly impotent in addressing the biggest public health scare in Nevada history.

The Nevada State Board of Licensure and Certification, which helped the Southern Nevada Health District investigate the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, fined the clinic $3,000 and declared confidence that all deficiencies had been corrected. And what of the licensed professionals who carried out the day-to-day business of these practices? Letters to the editor have been pouring into the Review-Journal since last Friday, demanding to know why Dr. Dipak Desai, who ran the endoscopy center, and other physicians and clinic nurses haven’t at least had their licenses suspended.

Dr. Javaid Anwar, president of the Nevada Board of Medical Examiners, said his agency needs more evidence before it can take action against any doctor involved in this travesty.

“Are those physicians posing potential harm to our patients at the center? We don’t have the information from our investigators to make that determination,” he said. “We need to let them come up with what exactly is the problem.”

Fred Olmsted, counsel for the Nevada State Board of Nursing, said his agency has the authority to “summarily suspend someone’s license” if the public’s health is at risk, but that right now there is no evidence of an “immediate threat” to the public.

Forty thousand Southern Nevadans are being urged to undergo immediate blood testing for potentially deadly diseases, and six confirmed cases of hepatitis C have been traced to a single clinic. Investigators with another state agency have pinpointed the exact cause of the outbreak — re-used syringes and vials — and clinic personnel have indicated they were trained to do their jobs in a way that puts the health of patients at risk. How much more evidence do Dr. Anwar and Mr. Olmsted need? Bodies in a freezer?

Anyone faced with the loss of their livelihood deserves due process protections. But if what has transpired over the past seven days isn’t enough to get the Nevada Board of Medical Examiners and the Nevada State Board of Nursing to make a few phone calls and schedule hearings immediately for all persons involved in this disaster, there is no point in their existence. Are these boards really nothing more than protection rackets?

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