Bill would require licensing boards to state a reason for dismissing complaints

State licensing boards are expected to explain refusals to investigate consumer complaints, under a proposed bill in the Iowa legislature.

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

Currently, Iowa’s licensing boards can dismiss a complaint requesting a licensee investigation without disclosing their reasoning to the complainant.

The bill provides that if a council determines that there is no probable cause to believe that an offense has occurred, the council must return the complaint to the complainant with a statement setting out the council’s reasons for dismissed the complaint. This explanation must be “sufficient to allow the complainant to review the council’s decision”, specifies the bill.

Jill Eggenberger, an Iowa resident who 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 failing to allow families like his to get “real answers about why our cases were closed.

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

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

The Iowa Board of Medicine is on record as undecided on the bill, though many associations made up of licensed professionals, including organizations for therapists, counselors, architects, doctors, nurses, accountants , trial lawyers and veterinarians, be recorded as opposing the bill.

The only entity currently registered to support the bill is the Iowa Office of the Ombudsman, which investigated Iowa’s licensing commissions in 2017 and released a report titled “A System Unaccountable.” . This report emphasized the “culture of secrecy” that leads commissions to keep secret virtually all information about the scope of their work and the reasons for their dismissal of complaints. This lack of accountability, the report concludes, does nothing to encourage thorough investigations.

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

Key lawmaker faces ‘unwarranted’ complaint

Representative 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 in as a licensed funeral director.

Bacon said a competitor filed a wrongful complaint about him with the Iowa Board of Mortuary Science, alleging unprofessional conduct. If the proposed bill had been state law at the time, he said, the plaintiff could have pursued the case in a public forum — a civil court — after the board chose not to take any action in this regard.

“So the press might pick it up and say, ‘John Smith is accused of – well, whatever,'” he said.

He said the complaint against him was made after he saw a competitor’s funeral procession enter a cemetery as he was leaving it. “I kind of nodded to them and gave them a wave – with all my fingers outstretched,” he said. That sparked the complaint, Bacon said, adding that he had “no idea” what the plaintiff was actually alleging.

Bacon said he had ‘no problem’ with the element of the bill that would require councils to give a reason for dismissing a complaint, but then added he would be happy to see the bill fail .

“People will still not be satisfied” with any explanation given by licensing boards, he said. In fact, he said, disclosing the reasons for dismissing a complaint might even give complainants more information about the issue, revealing other grounds on which they could base a complaint. “Someone might just look at this and say, ‘Hey, we’ve never seen it that way. This opens another Pandora’s box for us to pursue.

As of November 2018, contributors to Bacon’s political campaigns include political action committees representing Iowa dentists, nurse anesthetists, pharmacists, funeral directors, chiropractors, and physical therapists.

Veterinary council dismissed complaint linked to Cricket Hollow Zoo

While the bill asks councils to give their rationale for dismissing cases due to a lack of probable cause, it does not require that level of disclosure if decisions are based on other factors. In some cases, commissions have dismissed complaints for reasons unrelated to probable cause.

In 2020, for example, animal legal defense attorneys filed a detailed 1,600-word complaint with footnotes to the Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine. The ALDF alleged that Dr Ivan Lilienthal breached specific standards of veterinary practice, as well as Iowa’s administrative code and criminal laws, as official veterinarian at the now-closed Cricket Hollow Zoo in Manchester.

“Because of this blatant disregard for the expectations set out in your administrative code, hundreds of animals in this location have suffered and many have died,” the ALDF complained.

The council declined to investigate the matter, telling the ALDF only that it had no jurisdiction to initiate any disciplinary action. No further explanation was offered.

Iowa Board of Veterinary Medicine member DeWayne Rahe said in an interview last week that while he can’t comment on any specific cases, it’s important to keep in mind that the board has no jurisdiction than over veterinarians who charge a fee for their services.

Although another veterinarian in the Cricket Hollow case called Lilienthal’s actions involving the death of a zoo animal “veterinary malpractice”, evidence showed that Lilienthal had not billed the zoo for any of his services in the three years prior to the closure of the roadside attraction.

Editor’s Note: Journalist Clark Kauffman worked for the Iowa Ombudsman’s Office from October 2018 to November 2019.