BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Dr. Leah Torres spent years pursuing the education, skills and experience necessary to become qualified to practice medicine, including an additional two-year fellowship in family planning so she could pursue her passion and provide full-spectrum reproductive healthcare, including abortion care, to under-served populations.
However, three weeks after arriving in Alabama to do just that, her temporary medical license was revoked by the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners.
Just prior to the revocation, Torres was settling into her new position at the West Alabama Women’s Center (WAWC) in Tuscaloosa, one of three clinics that offer abortion care in Alabama.
“I was still using maps to get to work,” she said. “I was really excited to be at the clinic. I had only met the staff over a Zoom meeting, and to be in the clinic and with the staff – who are amazing, I knew I had made the right decision.”
Torres had chosen to come to WAWC because it would offer her the opportunity to practice full-spectrum reproductive care– something previous employers hadn’t allowed her to do.
“I wanted to take care of people in their pregnancy; I wanted to help with fertility aspects and all across the spectrum of fertility and family planning as well as the OBGYN side,” she said. “Every place that I worked hired me as a full spectrum OBGYN generalist but would not let me do abortion care. It wasn’t because of state laws, it was because of the employer.”
After obtaining a temporary license to practice medicine in Alabama, Torres moved to Tuscaloosa and began practicing at WAWC while applying for a permanent license.
Only three weeks into her new job, however, she received two visitors from ASBME.
“I was meeting with a patient who needed a procedure due to a complication. When I came out of the room, the staff said, ‘There are men from the board here to see you; you need to see them right now,'” Torres explained.
On Aug. 26, the two men issued Torres an order to cease treating patients and to surrender her temporary medical license. They also issued her a letter denying her application for a permanent license, according to Torres.
“I was shocked; I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what this had come from,” Torres said. “I had not been warned or notified there was some sort of question about my application.”
“I did what they, the two men, said, and then I read the paperwork,” she said. “I was just kinda gobsmacked; I couldn’t understand what happened, and it was very surreal. I walked back out, and I say, ‘We have to stop seeing patients; everyone in the waiting room needs to be sent home and referred to someone else. Everyone who called needs to be referred to someone else. We can‘t see any more patients. We don’t have a medical license.'”
According to Torres, the board alleged she provided fraudulent answers on her application when asked if court action had been taken “relating to your (her) performance of professional service.”
“In July, I had a question come back from the credentialing person saying, ‘You answered this question no, and it should be yes. Can you explain that?’ And that question was regarding my malpractice lawsuit, and I said, ‘Oh is that what you meant? That’s not what I thought that meant.'”
In the application, Torres said she interpreted a question regarding “court action” as asking if she had ever been taken to court for some sort of medical outcome, not necessarily for any of her professional work.
Torres claimed she provided all the information and documents about the malpractice suit within 24 hours and apologized for the misunderstanding. The matter was not mentioned again until she was served the order and letter.
Torres said the board also alleged she lied when she answered “yes” when asked on the application if she intended to “treat patients affected by and suffering from the novel virus COVID-19?”
“And I answered that question yes because the answer is yes. I was coming to Alabama to treat pregnant people who live in a state with COVID cases rising. I knew would be treating people who were probably infected with and affected by COVID,” she explained.
Torres said the board also alleged she conducted herself unprofessionally by making “public statements related to the practice of medicine which violate the high standards of honesty, diligence, prudence, and ethical integrity demanded from physicians licensed to practice in Alabama and which evidence conduct which is immoral and which is willful, shameful, and which shows a moral indifference to the standards and opinions of the community.”
After obtaining legal counsel, Torres set out to appeal the denial of her permanent license but it was a long process filled with bureaucracy and red tape.
During that time, she was unable to work and concerned about the patients she couldn’t see.
“That feeling of helplessness as a healthcare provider is unique, and it’s something I never felt as deeply as I did during those seventh months,” she described.
Director of Operations Robin Marty at WAWC told CBS 42 that the clinic had to outsource clinicians to treat patients, and for two months they were unable to see people at all.
“The person I had been seeing when those men came had serious, demanding complications. If those men had come in five minutes earlier we wouldn’t have been able to care for that patient, and them not getting care in that moment would’ve had serious, adverse effects for their health. Imagine the cases we don’t know about, the people we had to turn away or refer somewhere else,” Torres said.
“It was disheartening, to say the least. I knew people needed my help, and I couldn’t help them.”
Though she couldn’t practice, Torres continued to research how the clinic could begin expanding their operations as soon as she received her license back: “In my mind, I had to know that things would be righted, that I would be issued a license, and we would continue with our plans. I had to keep moving forward.”
Torres was eventually successful in her appeal, and she claimed she received a letter that acknowledged “(this) action should never have been taken” in regards to the revocation. She received her license on the condition that she pay a $4,000 non-disciplinary fine and take an ethics course.
General Counsel for the ASBME told CBS 42 that the board did not send any correspondence of that nature. They suggested Torres may be referencing a “computer-generated letter” sent by the National Practitioner Data Bank, a confidential information agency created by U.S. Congress that serves as “a workforce tool that prevents practitioners from moving state to state without disclosure or discovery of previous damaging performance.”
The final order, shared with CBS 42 by General Counsel for ASBME, gives the following reason for mandating Torres take the ethics course: “There were elements in some of Dr. Torres’s answers in her application which, in their totality, were suggestive of deceptive answers and a lack of ethical integrity expected of practicing physicians in Alabama. Thus, the Commission directs that Dr. Torres must attend an ethics course.”
Torres took the course, paid the fine and didn’t challenge the board for the legal fees she incurred through the appeal- which total $115,000.
It has been a year since the two men from the board walked into WAWC. Though Torres now has her license in hand, she is cautious.
“I almost didn’t believe it (the license), it had been that traumatic of a process. I am still in disbelief about everything that had happened, so it’s hard for me to accept the reality that the rug won’t be pulled out from me again. I couldn’t believe it was taken from me in the first place.”
The doctor is elated, though, to get to pursue her passion: “I was so excited also to finally, finally be able to care of Alabamians and provide evidence-based and high-quality healthcare that they deserve.”
As Torres once again provides care, she is eagerly anticipating the start of a telemedicine program at WAWC.
“It will save them so much more burden and get them what they need quicker,” she said. Telemedicine will allow patients to refill prescriptions for birth control, check-in about any health issues and have a reliable resource to help them navigate their reproductive health wherever they are.
“I am so proud and so humble to be able to serve Alabamians,” she said. “This has been one of the best places I have worked because the people here are so amazing. I can’t wait to be able to do more for them.”
General Counsel for ASBME also told CBS 42 the following:
Dr. Torres’ Temporary Emergency License expired by operation of law prior to the commencement of the hearing in her case. As a result, the Board’s summary suspension of that license based on Dr. Torres’ misrepresentation that she would use the license to treat COVID patients was never taken up by the Medical Licensure Commission. However, the Commission’s final order in the appeal suggests that they would have sided with the Board on this issue.
While Dr. Torres was ultimately given a medical license by the Medical Licensure Commission, she was directed to take an ethics course and to pay a fine of $4,000 prior to receiving her license.
The Commission remanded the case to the Board to issue a certificate of qualification, subject to the sanctions stated above, based on their finding that Dr. Torres did commit at least some of the acts identified by the Board.