Want to make sure that the real estate agent you hired and plan to entrust with the keys to your home is worthy of that trust? Plan to check the background of your health care provider to ensure he’s not cutting corners? The state licensing boards that oversee such professions may not be the best place to check.
Google is probably a better bet.
As the Hilton Head Island Packet reported last week, the state’s lax rules probably helped enable thefts from houses up for sale on the island. Real estate agent Darrell Finch, who had already been charged in Florida with grand theft and fraud, was able to get a South Carolina real estate license with no trouble because the form for getting a real estate license asked only if Finch had ever been convicted or pleaded no contest to a crime other than a minor traffic offense. As Finch had yet to be convicted of his charges, he sailed through. Even if the application had asked about arrests, no background check to verify the information takes place, leaving it up to the honor system and applicants’ willingness to tell the truth.
Finch was arrested again in July, accused of stealing jewelry from multiple Hilton Head homes and selling it to a Savannah pawn shop.
Real estate licenses are not the only blind spot for the state. Earlier this year, The Sun News wrote about Dr. Anil Potti, then an oncologist at the Coastal Cancer Center, headquartered in Myrtle Beach. Potti had already been reprimanded by the N.C. Medical Board and has numerous malpractice suits pending in that state. But the S.C. Board of Medical Examiners reveals none of that information to potential patients, even though a spokeswoman confirmed that they receive such notifications from other states.
As late as Thursday, anybody looking up Potti’s license on the medical board website, would be told only “No disciplinary action taken by the Board. This certifies that the above licensee is in good standing.” Anybody looking up Myrtle Beach’s Dr. James Vest, who settled a health care fraud suit just this past month, would similarly be told nothing except that he “is in good standing.”
At the time of Potti’s case, Fayrell Furr, a local lawyer who specializes in malpractice cases, was highly critical of the lack of information. South Carolina, he told reporter David Wren, “is not very diligent” about screening doctors who’ve run into trouble in other states.
“They let just about anybody in,” he said.
All of these cases, and others like them, raise basic concerns about public safety and access to information. If the background information is available – and in this electronic age, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be – it should be shared with the consumers or patients who will be putting their lives and property in the care of these licensed individuals.
The real estate industry, to its credit, is already pushing for stricter licensing requirements, including mandated criminal background checks that would have raised a red flag in Finch’s case. Nick Kremydas, CEO of the South Carolina Realtors Association, told the Island Packet that his group will be pushing legislators to reform licensing requirements when the General Assembly reconvenes in January.
But let’s not fool ourselves. The problem isn’t limited to just the real estate and medical boards.
“There are problems within each of our licensing committees,” said S.C. Rep. Tracy Edge, R-North Myrtle Beach.
Real estate agents are not the only licensees who don’t have to go through a criminal background check. Others who work on the honor system – asked only to voluntarily disclose criminal charges – include massage therapists, family therapists, pharmacists and dentists. And that’s hardly the only issue. Psychologists, for example, quizzed about their use of “recreational drugs,” are bizarrely asked only whether any use of such drugs takes place “to such a degree as to impair the performance of your professional duties,” leaving open the question of just how much illicit drug use is acceptable to the board licensing the state’s mental health professionals.
And while criminal background checks would be a good start in reforming some of these licensing requirements, the bigger goal should be providing more information to the public.
Medical doctors, for instance, already must pass a criminal background check, but as we saw with Dr. Potti, none of the information from other states makes its way to the patients he will treat, at least through our state board. And even in-state cases such as that of Dr. Vest are not revealed to inquisitive patients.
Edge was confident that broader licensing changes will come up in the legislature’s upcoming session, and we hope he’s right.
As he pointed out, “It’s just so much easier to get information these days. … With everything electronic, it shouldn’t be a problem of sharing information.
“That’s just basic consumer protection right there.”