Dozens of unqualified Florida doctors applied for emergency licenses in Alaska this year and a Chile-based company intentionally tried to recruit at least some of them, according to an ongoing investigation conducted the request of the Alaska State Medical Board.
The board that polices the state’s medical providers is expected to reevaluate the emergency licensing process in the coming months to address any potential for problems.
Fourteen of the unqualified doctors actually got licensed, though none practiced medicine in person or via telehealth before the oversight was discovered, state officials say.
While looking into the situation surrounding the Florida doctors, investigators also realized the Chilean company was trying to get doctors to Alaska by intentionally recruiting unqualified physicians and asking them to pay additional fees to get licensed, officials say.
An investigation continues into that recruiting company.
The Alaska situation is part of an evolving national medical response to the prolonged demands of COVID-19 that has led to calls to re-evaluate the existing licensure framework and better reflect and regulate the booming telehealth industry.
Nearly two dozen other states have adopted licensure waivers to address pandemic medical needs, according to a list maintained by the Federation of State Medical Boards.
As a major COVID-19 surge last November threatened to compromise Alaska’s health care capacity, the State Medical Board approved an “emergency courtesy license” to bring providers from the Lower 48. The eight-member board — which includes five physicians, one physician assistant and two members of the public — protects the public by adopting regulations to carry out laws governing the practice of medicine.
The change allowed for a fast-track licensing process to get physicians, physician assistants and paramedics the ability to practice here for six months, with one optional renewal.
Since November 2020, the state medical board has approved about 200 of the emergency licenses without issues, according to Glenn Hoskinson, spokesperson for the state Department of Commerce, Community, and Economic Development, which oversees the Division of Corporations, Business, and Professional Licensing. The division provides staff for the medical board.
But problems first surfaced in February, when Alaska occupational licensing examiners who certify physician credentials “began to notice a greater number of applicants for physician ECLs seemed to be coming from Florida than from other states,” Hoskinson wrote in an email.
Many of the Florida applicants held not a full license but a “house” license that allowed them to practice in a hospital only when supervised by another physician.
To get an emergency license in Alaska, providers need a “full, unencumbered license” in their home state, she said.
The matter was explained to the medical board during a May meeting.
“Of primary concern is the observation that nearly 50% of the applicants are from Florida, and the discovery that the majority of these applicants are unqualified to practice medicine,” executive administrator Natalie Norberg told the board, according to draft minutes of the meeting.
Additionally, Norberg told the board, division staff discovered that a licensing entity was actively soliciting unqualified applicants, promising full medical licensure in Alaska if they paid fees as high as $1,400.
The Chilean company’s role in recruiting doctors to Alaska surfaced during the investigation into the unusual number of Florida-based applicants.
In response to a request from the Anchorage Daily News, commerce officials last week identified the company as Licencia Medica Electronica, based in Chile. Asked if the company faces criminal charges, Hoskinson said the matter is an ongoing investigation and declined further comment.
The company did not respond to a request for comment this week.
The board agreed in May to refer the matter to the corporation division’s investigations unit, and to alert the Florida Board of Medicine and the Federation of State Medical Boards.
A spokesperson for the federation did not respond to multiple requests for information. The Florida board did not respond to multiple requests for information.
The Alaska investigation revealed that 52 Florida-based doctors with house licenses had applied for the emergency license in Alaska, according to Hoskinson. Thirty-eight had their applications denied.
Fourteen of them got licensed before the problem was detected, she said. None are licensed now. Some lost their licenses when renewal requests were denied. The rest agreed to voluntarily suspend their licenses.
The board’s minutes for its August meeting include a list of six doctors who agreed to voluntarily surrender their licenses. Several appear to practice in Florida. Calls to their offices were not returned.
A number of state medical board members either did not respond to messages or declined to be interviewed for this story.
Licensing is just one step in the process of bringing up Outside providers, Hoskinson noted. Hospitals and accredited health care facilities also perform “rigorous” credential checks, she said.
Officials from Anchorage’s three large hospitals say each facility conducts independent background checks before physicians get credentialed to work there.
Alaska Regional Hospital, which shifted in January to a new contract that involves out-of-state providers, did bring up “a few” doctors through the state’s Emergency Courtesy License process, according to spokesperson Kjerstin Lastufka. None were Florida doctors practicing with House licenses.
Regional in January began bringing up Lower 48 providers through a new contract with Envision Physician Services, Lastufka said. The hospital also hired 13 Alaska-based doctors.
“All clinicians at Alaska Regional Hospital hold full, unrestricted licenses to care for patients in Alaska, including those who have joined our team as part of Envision Physician Services,” Lastufka said in an email.
Representatives of the Alaska Native Medical Center and Providence Alaska Medical Center said neither hospital received Florida doctors nor worked with the Chile-based recruiter.
Alaska continues to issue emergency licenses, which remain a crucial method for getting providers here quickly, officials say.
The board in May directed Norberg to look at several options: improve or update the Emergency Courtesy License application; find different alternative license types including an expedited path to a temporary license; or eliminate the emergency license altogether, according to meeting minutes.
None of those options have gone into effect, Hoskinson said last week.
“The State Medical Board is continuing to explore different options around expediting the process for licensure,” she said.