In a controversial move, state officials are allowing a Greenwich physician who is registered as a sex offender to resume his medical practice in Connecticut.
In a recent decision, the Connecticut Medical Examining Board, an arm of the Department of Public Health, voted to allow Clifford Berken of Stamford to resume practicing medicine in the state, under certain conditions. Berken is a registered sex offender in Connecticut and New York, following his arrest and sentencing in New York State on a first-degree charge of attempting to disseminate indecent material to a minor.
The medical board, in allowing Berken to resume practicing, placed his license on probation for five years, required him to be overseen by a psychiatrist or psychologist, and barred him from treating patients under the age of 18. The board’s order also requires that Berken have another employee present during “any examination or treatment of a patient,” the records say.
Berken, 58, a doctor of internal medicine and gastroenterology, had surrendered his medical privileges at Greenwich Hospital and left his private practice in Greenwich, following his arrest in New York in 2008. In April 2009, the Connecticut board had issued an interim consent order in which Berken agreed to refrain from practicing medicine, pending further investigation.
His license status in New York remains inactive, meaning he cannot practice medicine there indefinitely, under the terms of a January 2009 order by that state’s Board for Professional Medical Conduct.
“I’m just stunned,” said Jean Rexford, executive director of the Connecticut Center for Patient Safety. “To think that someone can walk into [Berken’s] office and never know he’s a registered sex offender – I am so offended by this.”
Rexford noted that the state Department of Public Health [DPH] recently proposed legislation intended to make it easier for Connecticut to sanction physicians whose licenses are revoked or suspended by other states.
“They’re about to pass this law – and yet they’re letting a guy practice here, who will never be allowed to practice in New York?” she said. “It’s incredible.”
Anne C. Doremus, chair of the state’s medical examining board, said in an interview Tuesday that the board adopted the recommendation of a three-member hearing panel, which based its decision largely on the testimony of two therapists who had treated Berken, The therapists said Berken could return to practice with restrictions in place, as long as he continued in therapy.
Doremus said the decision was not an easy one.
“It bothered me and it bothered other people on the board” to allow Berken to resume his practice, Doremus said. “For God’s sakes, here’s a physician who was arrested for immoral conduct… But we have to rely on what we feel is the best evidence we can get” from the DPH, which investigates charges against physicians and presents cases to the medical board.
The three-member hearing panel included two physicians, Steven Wolf and Donald Grayson, and one non-physician, Richard Harris.
Berken pleaded guilty last year to charges by the Westchester County District Attorney’s Office that he had engaged in sexually explicit online conversations with an undercover officer posing as a 15-year-old boy. Police said Berken discussed various sex acts on numerous occasions and attempted to meet the “boy” in White Plains, where investigators arrested him.
As a result of the charges, Berken was required to register as a sex offender in New York and Connecticut. He will remain on Connecticut’s registry for 10 years.
Medical board members were not sure where Berken intended to resume his practice. The order requires him to practice in an office setting that has other physicians on-site while he is working.
He was not working at the Center for GI Medicine of Fairfield & Westchester, where he previously practiced, a receptionist there said Monday. “He’s no longer practicing,” she said. Berken could not be reached for comment.
According to the April 21 Memorandum of Decision by the Connecticut board, Berken was diagnosed with “various emotional disorders and/or mental health issues” that affected his ability to practice medicine from December 2008 through June 2009.
“Although respondent’s emotional disorders and mental illness are currently controlled with medication and intensive group and individual therapy, respondent’s current emotional disorders and mental illness may continue to affect his ability to practice medicine,” the order says.
Under state law, the board has the right to suspend or revoke the license of a physician for emotional disorder or mental illness, if it finds the physician poses a threat to the health and safety of any person.
But the board’s order goes on to say that two therapists who treated Belken believe that he may “return to his practice of medicine with certain restrictions in place, so long as he continues to address the emotional disorders, mental illness, family issues and various stressors that adversely impacted his ability to cope and severely impaired his judgment.”
The report does not identify the therapists or explain why the hearing panel agreed with their recommendations.
The report concludes: “The Board finds that respondent can practice medicine with reasonable skill and safety under the terms of this Order.”
Connecticut initiated action against Berken in 2009, after the New York State Office of Professional Medical Conduct ordered that he not engage in the practice of medicine in that state because of the criminal case.
Berken’s reinstatement comes on the heels of a December report by C-HIT that revealed that Connecticut was allowing some doctors whose licenses were revoked or suspended in other states to practice freely in Connecticut. The DPH is now proposing legislation that would explicitly empower the state to sanction physicians who have been disciplined in other states.
The state’s medical licensing statutes do not specifically allow the DPH to revoke the licenses of convicted sex offenders.
Doremus said that, by statute, the board has to consider whether a physician’s criminal wrongdoing impacts his or her ability to practice medicine.
She also said the panel is dependent on the state DPH to investigate charges against physicians; other states have independent medical boards, with their own investigative staff.
She said she would support a change to the statutes that would give the board the right to revoke or suspend the license of a physician who is convicted of a sex crime.
“You just get so frustrated at times,” she said. “No one wants to see a [psychologically] impaired person practice.”
She added, however, that the restrictions placed on Berken’s license were “very serious” and would ensure that he is closely supervised.
Earlier this month, the New Haven FBI office released a list of people, including a Vernon physician, who were arrested in a special initiative targeting child-exploitation crimes. In July 2010, members of the Connecticut Computer Crimes Task Force arrested Carl G. Koplin, a family practice physician in Vernon, on a criminal complaint charging him with receipt and distribution of child pornography. A judge ordered that Koplin be subject to electronic monitoring and that he have no contact with patients under the age of 18. His medical license remains active, according the state’s online licensing records.
Published reports indicate that Connecticut has denied a medical license to at least one known sex offender in the past. Dr. David Livingston, who was convicted of sexual misconduct in New York in 1988, was denied a medical license in Connecticut and Massachusetts in the early 1990s and ended up practicing in Tennessee, reports say.
In recent years, Connecticut’s rate of imposing serious disciplinary sanctions against doctors has been relatively low, in comparison to other states.
A new analysis of data from the Federation of State Medical Boards shows Connecticut ranked in the bottom five states in imposing serious discipline against doctors from 2008 to 2010, according to the non-profit Public Citizen’s Health Research Group. The national average was 2.98 serious actions per 1,000 physicians over those three years; Connecticut’s rate was 1.69, the fourth lowest rate in the country.
Serious discipline includes license revocations, surrenders, suspensions, probation and other restrictions.
A spokesman for the state Department of Public Health has said Connecticut takes a wide range of actions against doctors, some of which are not counted in the rankings.