Doctor has his license pulled

The state Department of Health has suspended the medical license of a local doctor who faces three felony criminal charges. Allegations were made that he sexually touched three female patients at Providence St. Peter Hospital's chemical dependency unit.

The agency's proceedings against Dr. Jitesh Chawla are administrative in nature, but concern the same type of allegations in Chawla's criminal case - that he inappropriately touched two women and a teenage girl, according to a Department of Health news release. The agency also alleges that Chawla "punctured a patient's lung while giving her an injection and later failed to recognize signs and symptoms indicating the serious complication."

"We have information that supports the allegations," agency spokeswoman Deanna Mill said of Chalwa's medical license suspension. As a result of the suspension, Chawla may not practice as a physician, she said.

Chawla, who is no longer employed at St. Peter, could not be reached for comment Friday. His criminal attorney, John Sinclair, also could not be reached.

"It's unfortunate that Ms. Mill is not as good at gathering facts as she is at generating press releases," said Chawla's attorney in the Department of Health case, John Versnel of Seattle. The agency hasn't fully investigated the allegations, which are inaccurate, Versnel said.

"Anybody can allege anything," Versnel said.

Chawla will seek a full administrative hearing before the Washington State Medical Commission, and will call witnesses to testify in his defense, Versnel said. Chawla is innocent and looks forward to practicing medicine in Washington again, he added.

When asked directly about the three women who have accused Chawla of touching them, Versnel said, "At the very least there was a misinterpretation of the circumstances, either intentional or unintentional."

Also on Friday, a Tacoma attorney sued Group Health Cooperative, an HMO that formerly employed Chawla at its Tacoma, Olympia and Federal Way clinics from September 2005 to March 2006. The lawsuit alleges Chawla sexually harassed and assaulted female patients and colleagues at Group Health's Tacoma clinic, and that a background check should have confirmed that he had a history of that type of behavior.

Versnel said he couldn't comment on the civil lawsuit, because he has not seen it.

Attorney Thaddeus Martin, who is representing a female former patient at Group Health Tacoma and two of Chawla's former colleagues, alleges in his suit that "Dr. Chawla should never have been allowed to work at Group Health and should have been terminated after his first incident of sexual harassment."

"He would touch their breasts, and would basically put his face in my clients' breasts," Martin said.

Chawla also is accused of rubbing his groin against employees. Chawla was visibly aroused during some of the episodes, the suit alleges.

Employees at Group Health who complained to management about Chawla's behavior were ignored, according to the suit.

"Group Health staff members were told by management that 'that is just his style,' and to 'keep it quiet,' " reads the suit.

Group Health spokesman Michael Erikson said he hasn't seen the suit.

"As employees brought forth complaints about Dr. Chawla, they were thoroughly investigated, and those complaints were part of what led to his termination," Erikson said. "At the time that we employed him, there were no complaints against his license."

Group Health conducts background checks on all of its physicians, including criminal background checks, references, previous employment, claims history and any prior complaints before the state's licensing board, Erikson said.

Martin's suit against Chawla and Group Health alleges that, "Dr. Chawla went to an off-shore medical school on the Caribbean Island of Saba called the Saba School of Medicine. Dr. Chawla was kicked out of Saba University for similar sexually assaultive behavior he engaged in at Group Health. Any background check would have confirmed that Dr. Chawla was forced to then pursue his medical degree at a newly chartered, off-shore Caribbean medical school called Grace University Medical School."

The background checks by Group Health turned up nothing to indicate he might engage in inappropriate behavior, including sexual harassment or assaults of colleagues or patients, Erikson said.

Chawla did not disclose to Group Health that he was an employee of Providence St. Peter Hospital, Erikson said.

"We knew that he was a resident there; we had no idea that he was employed by their chemical dependency unit," Erikson said.

Providence St. Peter terminated Chawla from its chemical dependency unit on Dec. 23, after three female patients formally complained to a hospital official about alleged mistreatment, court records state.

"We did not know in December what was occurring at his other employer," Erikson said.

The complaints at Providence St. Peter led directly to Chawla being charged with three counts of indecent liberties, each a Class B felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Chawla has pleaded not guilty and is out of jail after posting a $40,000 bond. As a condition of his release, Chawla is to have no contact with women, except for his wife and mother.

Chawla was terminated from Group Health in April, after staff complained about him, Erikson said. "He had multiple performance problems."

Group Health has sent e-mails to employees of the three health clinics where Chawla worked, asking any employee who might have been injured or harmed to notify the company, so it can offer support and help, Erikson said. Group Health is conducting its own internal investigation and will assist the Department of Health, Erikson added.

On Friday, Department of Health disciplinary manager Lisa Noonan said that she didn't think Chawla was working as a doctor in Washington prior to the suspension of his license. However, in court last week, Chawla's attorney, John Sinclair, said his client was employed at Valley View Health Center in Chehalis. Officials at the Valley View Health Center could not be reached for comment Friday night.

Now that Chawla's license is suspended, Chawla can either request a prompt formal hearing of the charges before the Washington State Medical Commission, or try to reach a settlement with the commission, Noonan said.

Jeremy Pawloski covers public safety issues for The Olympian. He can be reached at 754-5465, or jpawloski@theolympian.com.