Dr. William Dando

Dr. William Dando was indicted in late May on charges of sexual assault related to an April incident with a patient at an urgent care clinic. He operated a clinic on Frederick Road in Catonsville until 2013 and received his Maryland medical license in 1996 despite a 1987 conviction in a Florida rape. (Google Plus / June 5, 2014)

Revelations that a former Catonsville doctor obtained his Maryland medical license despite having a rape conviction on his record is sparking a push for criminal background checks of physicians — a proposal that has failed and been ignored in recent years.

As recently as 2013, state lawmakers considered a bill that encouraged checks for a wide range of health care providers, including doctors. It breezed through hearings and appeared headed for passage, but was pulled after a dispute over a single word, and was not reintroduced in this year's General Assembly session.

In other years, the issue simply hasn't been raised by legislators or advocates — even though the regulatory gap was highlighted in a legislative audit report in 2007. Requirements for doctors' background checks were left out of two recent reports guiding major overhauls of the state regulatory board for doctors, while such checks were mandated this year for chiropractors, counselors and physical and mental health therapists.

But the case of Dr. William Dando has regulators and legislators talking about reforms in Maryland, one of 13 states that does not conduct background checks on physicians, according to the Federation of State Medical Boards.

Dando practiced in Maryland for nearly two decades before anyone learned he was previously convicted of raping a woman at gunpoint in Florida. Now he is facing trial in Allegany County and his medical license has been suspended on allegations that he sexually assaulted a patient in April. He has pleaded not guilty.

"I think we all assume the people we're trusting our bodies and minds to are above reproach," said state Sen. James Robey, a Howard County Democrat who sponsored the 2013 legislation and is retiring this year. "Obviously, given what we've seen … a lot more needs to be done."

Del. Barbara Robinson, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the House of Delegates version of the bill, plans to submit a similar bill in the next General Assembly session. A legislative proposal also is expected from the Maryland Board of Physicians, which is responsible for licensing doctors, following meetings this summer to discuss policy options and to take feedback from public health advocates and other stakeholders.

Now that the board has made other suggested reforms, including reducing a backlog of complaints, it plans to focus on the background check issue, said Chairwoman Dr. Andrea Mathias.

"You have to get that house in order," said Mathias, who was appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2012. "I believe the foundation is laid."

One patient advocate welcomed any action to give consumers more information about their doctors' criminal records.

"The pattern usually is something very egregious like this happens, and that's what makes legislators take action," said Lisa McGiffert, director of the Safe Patient Project at Consumers Union, an advocacy branch of Consumer Reports. "Most consumers would want to know if the physician they're going to had a felony conviction in their background."

In 2007, legislative auditors made 31 recommendations in evaluating the state Board of Physicians; one suggested that the agency be required to conduct criminal background checks of licensure applicants.

Instead, applicants are asked to volunteer information about any arrests, guilty pleas or convictions related to crimes of "moral turpitude." Board officials say they investigate any that are disclosed.

But while legislation to reform the board was passed that year, and to a greater extent in 2012 and 2013, none of those measures included provisions for physician background checks. Legislative changes included making the board chairmanship a post appointed by the governor and establishing dual disciplinary panels to speed processing of complaints against doctors.

Two bills were proposed in 2013 at the request of state health department staffers who oversee health occupation boards. The legislation would have given the physicians board and various other licensing boards the power to conduct background checks of applicants.

But both pieces of legislation, one in each chamber of the assembly, were withdrawn after the attorney general's office said stronger language would be needed. To gain access to a national FBI database of criminal records, the boards needed a statutory mandate for the background checks, the office said.

While that hurdle involved the difference between "may" and "shall," it was enough to kill the legislation, Robinson recalled. "It just never got resolved."

Robinson and Robey said they received little support for the measure from state licensing boards, including the Board of Physicians.

"I received nothing in writing or anything from [the board] that they indicated they supported it," Robey said.

Records from the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee show that nine witnesses spoke in favor of the measure when the panel considered it in February 2013, and none opposed it. The physicians board did not send a representative or provide written testimony.