A private program that has long kept secret watch over Illinois doctors receiving substance-abuse treatment is now monitoring health care professionals with sexual misconduct violations — including some convicted of crimes.
Begun several decades ago by the state's doctors' lobby, the Illinois Professionals Health Program has drawn criticism for the off-the-books nature of its work and its lack of accountability.
That it has expanded its reach to sex-offending health workers has heightened the controversy. Critics say such individuals don't belong in a program shrouded in secrecy. Sexual misconduct demands disciplinary action, they say, not just treatment. And the public deserves to know who violators are.
"Who is being protected?" said John Goldberg, a former Illinois medical prosecutor.
It's part of a pattern of questionable oversight of medical professionals across the state. A Tribune investigation revealed that regulators have waited years to act on well-founded allegations of sexual misconduct. Offenders are allowed to practice even when convicted of crimes. And some are placed in a government-run monitoring program that is overburdened and unable to prevent harm to patients.
At the privately run Illinois Professionals Health Program, offenders have been monitored in a similar way — only out of public view. Among them was Venkatesan Deenadayalu, a doctor from the western suburbs who entered the program after he was convicted of sexual abuse and battery of a patient.
"We are getting all kinds of referrals now for disruptive behavior in the workplace, and we also receive … regular referrals of boundary violations, improper prescribing practices, sexual misconduct and other professional boundary issues," Dr. Martin Doot, then director of the Illinois Professionals Health Program, said at a 2007 medical disciplinary hearing for Deenadayalu, according to a transcript.
At another hearing for Deenadayalu, the medical prosecutor assigned to the case asked Carole Hoffman, the program's manager, if it included physicians with criminal convictions.
"At times," she said, according to a transcript.
Most state programs of this kind stay away from sexual misconduct cases.
The Des Plaines-based Illinois Professionals Health Program is sponsored by the state medical malpractice insurance provider and the doctors' lobby, according to its promotional literature.
It has received $234,275 from the state Department of Financial and Professional Regulation since fiscal 2009 to monitor nurses and pharmacists, the regulatory agency said. Physicians in the program pay out of pocket.
The program monitors hundreds of health care professionals who typically "face allegations or actual instances of addictions of all kinds, disruptive behavior, boundary violations, sexual misconduct" and other issues, according to the promotional material.
The staff — which consists of five people, according to a national association — steers participants into treatment, then monitors their progress. Those who fail to comply are supposed to face consequences, including possible public disciplinary action. If participants adhere to the monitoring agreements, the program will advocate on their behalf.
Participants sign up on their own or are ordered to by employers or state regulators, who have relied on the program with increased frequency, according to data obtained by the Tribune.
The Department of Financial and Professional Regulation has more than 100 confidential "Agreements of Care, Counseling or Treatment" in place that allow physicians and other health workers to submit to private monitoring instead of public discipline. The agency also tracks cases in which individuals are placed in the Illinois Professionals Health Program by their employers.
It is unclear how many cases of sexual misconduct have been handled by the private program.
Hoffman and Cynthia Gordon, the program's current director, did not respond to interview requests or questions submitted by e-mail. The regulatory department declined to provide copies of Agreements of Care, Counseling or Treatment, even with names redacted.
Spokeswoman Sue Hofer said the regulatory agency does not refer cases to the program that involve harm to patients, such as sexual misconduct. Because it does not track by category, it cannot say how many of the other cases in the program involve sexual misconduct, she said.