CA Medical Board: Patient or Physician Protection?

Published on

A Sonora family doctor arrested in July for overprescribing controlled substances is now accused of working “so high on narcotics” that she would nod off during appointments and pass out in the office, according to the Union Democrat.

A Newport Beach doctor had his license suspended in July after being caught stealing narcotics from patients. He tells the Daily Pilot, “Addiction does not discriminate between professions…It's killing people every day.”

A Laguna Beach pain management doctor lost his license in June, five years after stealing his patients’ identities to prescribe drugs to himself, the Orange County Register reports.

These stories are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to doctor substance abuse in California, which afflicts an estimated 15 to 18 percent of doctors during their lifetime and 1 to 2 percent at any given time.

Usually, those doctors are never caught. Over a 10-year period the Medical Board disciplined just 149 doctors for substance abuse, 27 for using drugs or alcohol at work and 104 for DUIs.

Random drug testing of doctors – like we already do for every other safety sensitive job on the planet (from airline pilot to forklift operator) – would help identify addiction, keeping patients safe and getting doctors the help they need.

But that's not the solution the California Medical Board is proposing. At its August meeting the Board started discussing a different cure. It could be worse than the disease.

The Medical Board brought in doctors from Arizona and Colorado to testify about their states’ programs to confidentially treat substance abusing doctors.

California had one of these “diversion” programs for years, that allowed doctors caught using drugs to choose a confidential rehab program to avoid discipline. The Medical Board shut the program down in 2008 because it was a revolving door for drunk and high physicians that prioritized keeping a doctor’s addiction secret over protecting patients.

Just ask Michelle Monserrat-Ramos, who lost her fiancé Lloyd Monserrat to a surgical error. She found out later that Lloyd’s doctor had a history of crack cocaine use, but was never disciplined. His patients were never notified.

Supporters of diversion programs argue that it’s in patients’ best interest to get addicted doctors into treatment. But doctors with substance abuse problems are free to enter one of countless existing rehab programs now. The real question is whether the Medical Board is going to sanction a program that lets doctors keep their addiction problems secret, and avoid consequences when they fail.

The resounding answer must be no.

The Board has presumably started these talks because it wants to restart a program. (You can read just how bad their last go-round was in this report from the Center for Public Interest Law.) Transparency, accountability and independence of any doctor substance abuse program will be a litmus test for the Board, which has made efforts recently to revamp its image as a patient safety organization. Has it undergone a real shift or just gotten a facelift? Diversion will tell.

Carmen Balber
Carmen Balber
Consumer Watchdog executive director Carmen Balber has been with the organization for nearly two decades. She spent four years directing the group’s Washington, D.C. office where she advocated for key health insurance market reforms that were ultimately enacted into law as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Latest Videos

Latest Releases

In The News

Latest Report

Support Consumer Watchdog

Subscribe to our newsletter

To be updated with all the latest news, press releases and special reports.

More Releases