The agency that regulates Utah's 190,000 licensed professionals quickly investigates complaints but could be more consistent and thorough in punishing those who violate the law or the terms of their probation, a legislative audit shows.
Utah's $7.7 million Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing (DOPL) regulates professionals in 70 occupations, from barbers and security guards to doctors and dentists. Most of the agency's resources are devoted to handling license applications and renewals, which it does well, according to a report shared with legislative leaders Wednesday by the legislative auditor general.
"Criminal background checks are performed consistently and securely," the report said.
But DOPL has room for improvement in fulfilling its other, equally important watchdog role, auditors said.
DOPL's 32 licensers investigated 3,352 complaints of misconduct in fiscal year 2012 closing about 84 percent of the cases within the legal limit of 150 days, auditors found.
But, "We found 108 cases that had been open from 500 to over 2,000 days," the audit said. One case file was lost and a handful sat idle for nearly a year.
Among other shortfalls: inconsistencies in issuing fines for unlawful or unprofessional conduct, and breakdowns in monitoring those on probation.
"Our review found cases where probationers were given numerous warnings [for violating the terms of their probation agreement] but never disciplined," said audit Supervisor Deanna Herring. The lack of follow-through and "empty threats" send the wrong message to probationers and may lead to more serious violations, she said.
Last year 526 professionals were on probation. Auditors only looked at a small sample of 21 cases but found 19 in which probationers broke probation. One logged 80 violations in a year, the audit found.
Some violations were minor, such as the failure to return paperwork. Others were more egregious.
Of particular concern to House Speaker Becky Lockhart were cases where health providers suffered no consequences after skipping or failing drug and alcohol screens.
Within a week of being warned to stop skipping drug screens, a nurse, for example, tested positive for drugs and missed five subsequent tests, suffering no repercussions. And a dentist, allowed back onto probation after having his license suspended for substance abuse, escaped punishment for failing a drug screen.
"I always figured if I did drugs or stole drugs I would lose my license on the spot," said Lockhart, R-Provo, a registered nurse. "This concerns me that we have people with direct patient contact, people with patients' lives in their hands, and they're on probation for years and getting more and more chances."
DOPL Director Mark Steinagel said he shares Lockhart's concerns and assured her that many of auditors' recommendations for improvement are already under way.
Supervisors are reviewing case files more closely and, in some instances, rejecting calls for probation extensions or leniency, he said. DOPL also recently launched a website where consumers can vet professionals and see if they've been disciplined.
Most importantly, Steinagel said, Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, is sponsoring legislation that would allow DOPL to take less formal, swifter action against errant probationers.
Licensing boards are often loath to take action against their peers when the only recourse is to suspend or revoke someone's license, she said.
Dunnigan's bill would allow DOPL to directly impose lesser sanctions, such as small fines, in cases where someone has slipped up but hasn't fully violated their probation.
This would let probationers know someone is watching, speed up the process and free licensing boards to focus on more serious violations, Steinagel said.
Search the records
O The Salt Lake Tribune's data site, UtahsRight.com, now features searchable records on state disciplinary sanctions against 1,853 licensed professionals in Utah.
The records, issued from October 2008 to November 2012 by the Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing, are accessible online by name, company, professional type and the licensed professional's city of residence.
Licensed professionals included in the database include 786 construction contractors, 266 nurses, 130 pharmacists or pharmacies, 83 physicians, 75 cosmetologists and barbers, 65 massage therapists and hundreds of records on professionals licensed in more than 100 other state-regulated professions.
The database is linked to on the UtahsRight.com homepage or available directly. > extras.sltrib.com/DOPL_search