Bill would force licensing boards to state a reason for rejecting complaints

By: - February 7, 2022 11:29 am

The State Capitol in Des Moines. (Photo by Katie Akin/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

State licensing boards would have to explain refusals to investigate consumers’ complaints, under a bill proposed in the Iowa Legislature.

House Study Bill 565 would also make a licensing board’s determination that an investigation is not warranted, or should be closed without disciplinary action, subject to review by the courts.

Currently, Iowa licensing boards can reject a complaint seeking an investigation into a licensee without disclosing their reasoning to the complainant.

The bill provides that if a board determines there is no probable cause to believe a violation has occurred, the board shall return the complaint to the complainant along with a statement specifying the board’s reasons for dismissing the complaint. That explanation must be “sufficient to enable the complainant to review the board’s determination,” the bill states.

Jill Eggenberger, an Iowan who has urged lawmakers to consider passing the bill, says the system currently doesn’t hold the Iowa Board of Medicine and other licensing boards accountable for their actions or allow for families like hers to obtain “any real answers on why our cases were closed.”

She says she complained to the medical board after learning her daughter didn’t meet the criteria for a traumatic and unnecessary medical procedure, and then was “shocked and deeply disturbed” by the board’s inaction on the case.

“At a minimum, families deserve an explanation as to why a specific investigation did not warrant public charges or disciplinary action,” she told legislators.

The Iowa Board of Medicine is registered as undecided on the bill, although numerous associations made up of licensed professionals, including organizations of therapists, counselors, architects, physicians, nurses, accountants, trial lawyers and veterinarians, are registered as opposing the bill.

The only entity currently registered in support of the bill is the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, which investigated Iowa’s licensing boards in 2017 and issued a report called “A System Unaccountable.” That report focused on the “culture of secrecy” that causes the boards to keep secret virtually all information about the scope of their work and their reasons for dismissing complaints. That lack of accountability, the report concluded, does nothing to encourage thorough investigations.

“We believe it is imperative that the state’s licensing boards be more accountable to the public they serve,” the ombudsman’s report concluded. “More transparency is the only way to instill confidence in the important decisions these boards make.”

Key lawmaker faced ‘unwarranted’ complaint 

Rep. Robert Bacon, a Slater Republican, recently opposed moving the House version of the bill out of the State Government subcommittee for consideration by the full committee, pointing to his own experience as a licensed funeral home director.

Bacon said a competitor filed an unwarranted complaint about him with the Iowa Board of Mortuary Science, alleging unprofessional conduct. Had the proposed bill been state law at that time, he said, the complainant could have pursued the case in a public forum — civil court — after the board opted to take no action in the matter.

“So, the press could pick it up and say, ‘John Smith is being charged with — well, whatever,'” he said.

He said the complaint against him came after he saw a competitor’s funeral procession entering a cemetery as he was leaving. “I kind of nodded to them and gave them a hand wave — with all fingers extended,” he said. That triggered the complaint, Bacon said, adding that he had “no idea” what the complainant was actually alleging.

Bacon said he has “no problem” with the element of the bill that would require boards to give a reason for dismissing a complaint, but then added he’d be content to see the bill fail.

“People still aren’t going to be satisfied” with whatever explanation they’re given by licensing boards, he said. In fact, he said, disclosing the rationale for dismissing a complaint might even give the complainants more information on the matter, revealing other grounds on which they could base a complaint. “Someone might just look at that and say, ‘Hey, we never looked at it this way. This opens up another can of worms for us to go after him.'”

Since November 2018, contributors to Bacon’s political campaigns have included the political action committees representing Iowa dentists, nurse anesthetists, pharmacists, funeral directors, chiropractors and physical therapists.

Veterinary board dismissed complaint related to Cricket Hollow Zoo

Although the bill calls for boards to give their reasoning for dismissing cases due to a lack of probable cause, it doesn’t require that level of disclosure if the decisions are based on other factors. In some cases, boards have dismissed complaints for reasons unrelated to probable cause.

In 2020, for example, attorneys for the Animal Legal Defense filed a detailed, footnoted, 1,600-word complaint with the Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine. The ALDF alleged Dr. Ivan Lilienthal had violated specific veterinary practice standards, as well as Iowa’s administrative code and criminal statutes, in serving as the official veterinarian for the now-shuttered Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester.

“As a result of this blatant disregard for the expectations set forth in your administrative code, hundreds of animals at this location suffered and many died,” the ALDF complained.

The board refused to investigate the matter, telling the ALDF only that it lacked jurisdiction to pursue any potential disciplinary action. No further explanation was offered.

One Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine member, DeWayne Rahe, said in an interview last week that while he can’t comment on any specific case, it’s important to keep in mind the board only has jurisdiction over veterinarians who charge fees for their services.

Although another veterinarian in the Cricket Hollow case called Lilienthal’s actions involving the death of one zoo animal “veterinary malpractice,” evidence showed Lilienthal didn’t charge the zoo for any of his services in the three years before the roadside attraction was ordered closed.

Editor’s note: Reporter Clark Kauffman worked for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman from October 2018 through November 2019. 

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing.