When the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine believes that a physician may be an immediate, serious threat to the public, it may offer the physician the opportunity to enter into a Voluntary Agreement Not to Practice, often referred to as a “VANP”. As revealed by its name, when a physician enters into a VANP, she is agreeing to immediately stop practicing medicine while the Board investigates the information it has received, and, if warranted by the evidence it finds, pursues discipline against the physician’s license.
Why would a physician agree to stop practicing medicine before the Board has even completed its investigation and before the physician has had an opportunity to test that evidence at a hearing? There are three central benefits to a VANP that may make an option worth considering.
First, if the physician agrees to a VANP, the Board will not try to summarily suspend the physician’s license. A summary suspension is a “shoot first, ask questions later” action, where the Board, usually in a matter of days, votes to suspend a physician’s license based on information that a physician is a “serious” threat to her patients. Cases where the Board likely will try to suspend a physician’s license include when a physician has an active substance abuse problem, when a physician has been charged with a crime, or when there is credible evidence that the physician had a sexual relationship with a patient. A summary suspension leaves a very black mark on a physician’s license and can be difficult to challenge because the process unfolds so quickly that it a physician may not have enough time to mount a robust defense. Entering into a VANP slows down the process and gives both the Board and the physician time to collect and to evaluate evidence.
Second, a VANP is non-disciplinary and leaves a physician with a full license to practice medicine. Hopefully the Board’s investigation eventually can be resolved with no or minimal discipline. The VANP then ends, and the physician may be able to return to the practice of medicine without any formal period of suspension on her record.
Third, the VANP can keep ugly, untested allegations out of the public eye. While the VANP itself is a public document, it makes no reference to why the physician is entering into the agreement. When wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a patient, for example, this can be an important benefit of a VANP.
Of course there are downsides as well. Most importantly, the physician cannot practice medicine, and it may take a year or longer to resolve the matter with the Board. A VANP also will be posted on the Board’s website, and the Board reports it to the National Practitioner’s Data Bank, so it is not a confidential agreement. Whether to enter into a VANP can be a difficult choice, but it may well be the lesser of two evils.