Shutdown could lock out thousands of medical professionals

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Shutdown court hearing
Medical providers are rushing to renew their licenses to avoid being sidelined during a possible government shutdown. Doctors, nurses, dentists and others have just one week to submit their renewal applications before the boards that license them may be forced to close. Providers who miss that deadline would be prohibited from working as soon as their license expires. Ramsey District Court heard arguments on the shutdown case Thursday, June 23, 2011 at the Ramsey County Courthouse in St. Paul, Minn.
Jim Gehrz/Star Tribune, pool photo

Medical professionals have just one week to submit their renewal applications before the boards that license them may be forced to close.

Thousands of Minnesota doctors and nurses who who miss that deadline would be prohibited from working as soon as their license expires.

Some licensing boards are loosening up their renewal guidelines during the next week, just in case they have to close their doors for a long government shutdown. The Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, which licenses physicians, adjusted its computer system to allow doctors to renew their licenses through September. Typically the Board deals with renewals one month at a time.

That change in guidelines has already put a lot of pressure on the Board's computer system as doctors scramble to submit their online renewal applications. Executive Director Robert Leach says more than 3,800 physicians are due to renew their licenses in the next three months.

"We've gotten a great many phone calls from individuals who are getting error messages and not allowing them to complete the process, Leach said. "We're having to tell them just go back and just try it again. It's due to the increased traffic on the system."

The Minnesota Board of Nursing has also seen a surge in its online renewals. Executive Director Shirley Brekken says renewals have more than doubled from just a week ago.

"We are having more renewals, especially for this time of the month than we usually do. And we certainly are noticing that nurses whose licenses are due to expire further out are renewing now," Brekken said.

So far in June, Brekken says more than 3,510 nurses have renewed their licenses. That's 1,257 more renewals than during the same period last year.

Online license renewals are also up at the Minnesota Board of Dentistry. But a decision by the Board to not accept August and September renewals sparked a firestorm of complaints from its dentist members, who are voicing frustrations that their licenses could expire during a shutdown.

"It's ugly," said Marshall Shragg, the dentistry board's executive director.

The dentistry board is not expanding its renewal guidelines because it lacks the resources to deal with the increased demand for renewals before the end of the month.

"They're saying that it's unfair that the Board would not accept early renewals and that they want special accommodations to be made. And it's unfortunate that we're not able to do that," Shragg said.

LICENSE TO WORK

A thornier problem facing licensing boards is applications from brand new doctors and nurses whose new licenses require more scrutiny before they're granted.

The Minnesota Board of Nursing will not be able to grant new license applications to anyone still waiting on test results. Many new nurses are just beginning to schedule those licensing exams.

"This is of course the busiest time of the year for new graduates who are applying for licensure. And right now we have a little over 3,000 open applications," Brekken said.

The same issue affects new doctors too.

At numerous hospitals there has been concern regarding new residents who won't be able to start their jobs on time.

"Right now, residents are graduating, new physicians are graduating from residencies at this time of year. And they're starting their employment sometime between now and this fall," said Dr. David Thorson, chair of the Minnesota Medical Association. "So you could have a physician coming out who has a job lined up that would not be able to start practice because the board is closed."

BEYOND LICENSES

Besides the employment challenges facing health care workers, a state shutdown could also affect investigations into physician or nurse misconduct. Patient complaints would not be able to be checked out by the Board of Medical Practice.

"So if there are physicians out there who are not practicing safely or up to standard, we are not going to be able to complete those investigations and take whatever remedial actions need to be taken to make sure that they are safe to practice," Leach said.

The licensing issue doesn't just affect doctors, nurses and dentists. It affects social workers, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, physical therapists, behavioral therapists, pharmacists, chiropractors, podiatrists and emergency medical services.