The state agency that investigates wrongdoing by doctors, funeral directors, dentists and other licensed professionals has temporarily suspended a controversial new policy aimed at "vigorously" reducing enforcement of cases that administrators say are unnecessary.

The Department of Safety and Professional Services policy took effect April 10 but was put on hold twice, most recently May 6, amid concerns it goes too far in keeping complaints against professionals from reaching the boards that review them.

The policy narrows the types of complaints to be reviewed by experts in each of the 61 professional fields regulated by the department, urging administrative clerks and staff attorneys to close more cases before they are seen by professional oversight boards.

In the past, the boards spent too much time on frivolous complaints, delaying action on more serious allegations, said department spokeswoman Katie Koschnick.

Now, she said, the policy seeks to close more cases while including important safeguards such as tracking the number of closed cases and reviewing them at quarterly enforcement division meetings.

The chairman of the department's Medical Examining Board said he's concerned public safety will be compromised if fewer complaints are evaluated by professionals with specialized knowledge about those they regulate.

"I don't want this decided by a bureaucrat," Dr. Sheldon Wasserman said. "They don't know medicine."

Wasserman said department staff assured him nothing will change for his board, but he doesn't know how that squares with the new policy, which he didn't see until Tuesday when the State Journal provided him with a copy.

"I don't want complaints screened out because someone says we don't have the time to look at this," Wasserman said. "If you start screening too much, you cut holes in the safety net."

Even before the policy was in place, physicians on the medical board have had to correct staff attorneys who wanted to close complaints because they didn't recognize serious unprofessional behavior, Wasserman said.

The board issues reprimands and orders education for offending doctors. It also can revoke or suspend licenses.

The state agency regulates examining and licensing boards for professionals from pharmacists and psychologists to nurses and accountants.

Guidelines revised

The April 10 policy is a revision of 2009 guidelines that listed 10 types of cases that intake staff can consider closing without board review.

It expands the list in several ways, calling for closure of cases that can be investigated by other agencies or handled through private lawsuits, and directing that all such "complaints shall be vigorously identified by Division staff for potential closure after legal review."

Concerns about the way the changes were playing out prompted officials to place it on hold twice since it was implemented, said the department spokeswoman.

Koschnick said the policy was suspended on April 23 "while we revised forms and rearranged intake staff."

She said it was placed on hold again May 6, four days after the chairman of the Dentistry Examining Board objected to the dismissal — without involvement of the board or its screening panel — of a complaint against a licensed professional who falsely advertised credentials in a medical specialty.

The chairman, Dr. Lyndsay Knoell, told department officials "this could rise to misrepresentation of a credential and is a serious issue which should be opened," Koschnick said. "We agreed, and the case was opened and referred for investigation. The policy is being further modified to address this type of situation."

Knoell declined to comment.

Frivolous complaints

Koschnick responded to questions only by email. She declined to be interviewed and said Secretary Dave Ross and department Enforcement Division Administrator Chad Koplien, who authorized the policy, weren't available to discuss screening procedures.

About 39 cases were tracked as being closed under the new policy, according to Koschnick.

The department hasn't tracked frivolous complaints, but in January 2011 the Enforcement Division counted 216 pending cases dated 2008 or older, Koschnick said.

"The role of these policy revisions was to bring a more responsible resolution to members of the public who feel that they have been harmed by license holders," Koschnick said. "Frivolous complaints delay this important process, and the policy will positively affect the timeliness of the deliverance of justice and protection of the consumer."

Dr. Gene Musser, a Medical Examining Board member and former board chairman, said he agrees with a goal of weeding out frivolous cases. But he said the policy appears to go too far by closing cases related to drunken driving and unprofessional conduct that hasn't yet caused physical or financial harm.

"We enforce Wisconsin administrative code that defines unprofessional conduct, including action that constitutes a danger to the public," Musser said. "There doesn't have to be an injury. We are in the business of deterring."

Having attorneys review closed-out cases is good, Musser said, as long as the lawyers are experienced in professional regulation.

In addition to Wasserman, others contacted by the State Journal who said they weren't aware of the new policy included Musser, Knoell, and two other leaders of department professional boards.

Koschnick said some of the department's larger boards agreed in 2010 to delegate screening authority to enforcement division staff, but Musser said the policy goes significantly beyond what was discussed two years ago.

Troubling provisions

The Wisconsin State Attorneys Association union is concerned about the policy for several reasons, including its potential effect on the public, said Cathy Lake, an attorneys union board member who works as an administrative law judge for another state agency.

State law gives authority for most of the department's rule-making and regulation to the examining boards and other professional panels. But most of the boards haven't even been told about the policy, Lake said.

Among the provisions Lake is troubled by are those that urge closure of health care fraud cases unless a court or another agency has already made a finding of guilt against a professional, and closing other cases where harm hasn't been proved.

"The idea of a consumer protection agency is that the injured consumer doesn't have to fight the battle because the government will enforce the law," Lake said. "Waiting for actual harm means that dangerous practices that minimally competent practitioners won't do are now exempt from professional review."