While Johnson County neurosurgeon Robert Tenny was performing a routine procedure seven years ago, the brain of his patient, Maribeth Chase, was injured so severely that she went into a coma and died.
On Friday, Kansas regulators approved an agreement with Tenny to suspend his medical license for two years rather than hold a disciplinary hearing on how he handled Chase’s surgery and its aftermath.
For Chase’s family, Tenny’s suspension brings some closure to the unexpected death of an active 77-year-old woman who was still going to the gym for aerobics in the days before her surgery. But the case also shows how long it can take to discipline a physician who has the resources to put up a legal fight.
“This was our goal from the beginning, to keep him from practicing,” Chase’s daughter, Claire Chase of Lenexa, said Friday. “It’s my feeling this effectively ends his career as a surgeon, at least in Kansas. It’s disturbing that it took seven years to get there.”
Tenny’s attorney did not respond to several requests Friday for comment.
Tenny, 62, was the subject of a Kansas City Star investigation in 2011 of Kansas and Missouri doctors who had been sued repeatedly for malpractice and run up settlements totaling tens of million of dollars while keeping spotless medical licenses with no disciplinary actions taken against them.
At the time Tenny operated on Chase, he already had been sued at least 16 times for allegedly making medical mistakes that left one patient dead, several more with paralysis and others in need of remedial operations. While consistently denying the allegations, Tenny settled at least six of these lawsuits, court records indicate.
Tenny also settled a wrongful death case brought by Claire Chase and other family members for $1.01 million. That settlement brought total malpractice payments made on Tenny’s behalf since the early 1990s to roughly $3.7 million, federal records indicate.
Chase went into surgery on Feb. 27, 2007, because a small pool of blood had welled up on the surface of her brain. Surgery to drain the blood is often a routine procedure. However, Chase suffered a brain injury during surgery. She died March 14, 2007.
Tenny insisted that a surgical technician was responsible, but other staff who were in the operating room said the technician named by Tenny wasn’t present during the operation.
A week after her mother died, Claire Chase filed a formal complaint against Tenny with the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts, the agency that licenses physicians and most other health professionals. Late in 2007, the Chase family’s attorney, Victor Bergman, supplied the board with depositions taken for the lawsuit, along with a letter outlining his case against Tenny.
It wasn’t until June 2010 that the Kansas board initiated disciplinary proceedings against Tenny, based largely on his treatment of Maribeth Chase. Hearings on Tenny’s case were postponed repeatedly. In one case, the board had to delay the proceedings when its expert witness wasn’t available on time. But more often, it was legal wrangling by Tenny’s lawyers that kept the case from going forward.
Proceedings were held up for most of 2012, for example, when Tenny’s lawyers sought a ruling in civil court. The judge ruled against Tenny in October 2012.
Discipline against doctors often is slowed because medical licensing boards frequently lack the kind of legal firepower that a well-paid doctor can afford, said physician Sidney Wolfe, founder and senior adviser of Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, a consumer advocacy organization.
“A large problem in many states is that the medical board and staff will do a good job investigating and you have grounds to suspend a license, but the medical board doesn’t feel it has the legal resources to fight and the doctor does,” Wolfe said. “The legal power intimidates the board.”
Claire Chase observed the Kansas board closely as it dealt with Tenny’s case.
“It seemed the whole organization never had the resources they needed,” she said. “They were losing young lawyers. They’d be there for a year and move on. There was a lot of work to do, and not many people to do it.”
The Kansas board is funded through its license fees, but the Legislature appropriates its budget and doesn’t give the board the full amount. In the 2013 fiscal year, board revenues were $4.6 million; its expenditures were $4.2 million.
“We have an appropriate revenue stream to do what we do. The question is whether the Legislature will authorize the spending,” said Kathleen Selzler Lippert, executive director of the Kansas board.
Tenny was scheduled again in November for a disciplinary hearing. Before that hearing was to begin, he agreed to a settlement. But a vote by the board on whether to accept the settlement couldn’t be scheduled until Friday. During the intervening three months, Tenny’s license was suspended temporarily.
According to the terms of the consent agreement Tenny reached with the board, he will pay $20,000 in costs. If Tenny seeks reinstatement of his license, he will have the legal burden of proving that he is sufficiently rehabilitated to practice medicine and will have to submit to an assessment of his clinical skills.
Tenny also has medical licenses in at least two other states, Minnesota and Missouri. Medical boards share information, so disciplinary actions in one state often lead to comparable actions taken by medical boards in other states where a doctor is licensed.