Greased Legislative Attempt To Shield Drunk And High Doctors Passes Assembly Committee, Decried By Consumer Watchdog

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SANTA MONICA, CA – A suspension of legislative rules in the Assembly allowed a bill introduced five days ago to divert drunk and high doctors from discipline to confidential treatment to pass the Assembly Business, Professions, and Consumer Protections Committee today.

The author of AB 2346, Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez, refused to accept amendments proposed by the Center For Public Interest Law and Consumer Watchdog to make sure addicted doctors in treatment are also reported to the medical board’s disciplinary arm, to prevent treatment from substituting for discipline, and to prevent medical interests responsible for the last scandal-plagued monitoring program from running this one.

Consumer Watchdog noted in its letter opposing AB 2346 unless amended, that representatives for the California Medial Association, the bill’s sponsor, recently claimed publicly that doctor drug and alcohol abuse was not a concern.  The group noted the filing of 840,000 signatures for a patient safety ballot measure to create random drug and alcohol testing for physicians likely instigated the gut-and-amended AB 2346.

In addition to the other concerns, Consumer Watchdog noted the legislation does not take away the prescribing ability of a doctor caught abusing prescription drugs, and does nothing to identify problem doctors before their substance abuse places patients at risk.  Consumer Watchdog included in its letter to the author, Assembly member Gonzalez, a list of drunk and high doctors from her San Diego Assembly district and the damage they caused.

Testifying to the committee today was Tina Minasian, a victim of an alcohol-addicted doctor who had been protected by the last confidential substance abuse monitoring program that diverted him from discipline.  She explained how the drunk doctor manipulated the system to gain confidentiality: “The medical board’s diversion was a failed 25 year program…  The problem I have with this bill it creates another diversion. They may not say it is a diversion. It smells like a diversion. It is a diversion. This one not only keeps doctors’ substance abuse problems secret from the public, but also from the medical board…Construction workers are drug tested every single week. Doctors should be held to a higher standard.”

Ms. Minasian, of Roseville, CA, was harmed by her physician when a botched surgery left her maimed and in years of pain. She found out later that the doctor had an alcohol abuse problem and a history of DUI arrests, including one on the way to the hospital to treat a patient.

Consumer Watchdog’s president Jamie Court and executive director Carmen Balber wrote that the state should not create another private treatment program that would be used by drunk and high doctors to hide from discipline.

“The California Highway Patrol (CHP), 60 Minutes, the Center for Public Interest Law, and five separate state audits found that the diversion program let substance-abusing doctors off the hook for failing to comply with rehabilitation terms and failed to monitor substance abusers,” Court and Balber wrote. “Seven years ago, the California Medical Board shut down this failed confidential rehab program run by the same interests backing AB 2346 today. That program prioritized keeping a doctor’s addiction secret over the safety of his patients. This failed road is not one that Californians should again walk down, particularly as substance abusing physicians have the ability to prescribe their own drugs to feed their own addiction – a privilege other professions do not enjoy.

“Nothing in this bill prevents the same Medical Association interests that turned the diversion program into a country club for substance abusing doctors from running the program presented in AB 2346. Moreover, AB 2346 needs to be amended to exclude “diversion” as an option in lieu of the disciplinary system, as the state bar program does.”

Court and Balber cited the bill’s numerous failures, starting with its failure to inform the public of drunk or drug-abusing doctor, putting patient safety at immediate and grave risk of harm:

“Patient safety demands the public be informed of physician addiction problems. Yet the second sentence of AB 2346 would ensure just the opposite: ‘Confidentiality pursuant to this article shall be absolute…'

“For this reason alone, Consumer Watchdog would urge the committee to oppose AB 2346. Unfortunately, it’s not the only reason.

“The bill does nothing to identify problem doctors before their substance abuse places patients at risk. Doctors should meet more stringent safety standards than most professions, not less. Yet the number one tool for detecting substance abuse in other jobs where safety matters – random drug and alcohol testing – is not contained in this legislation. If random drug testing is the right thing to do for the nation’s pilots, bus drivers, train engineers, and even athletes, surely it’s the right thing to do for doctors who hold our lives in their hands.

“AB 2346 does not remove doctors from practice when they enroll in rehab, or take away the prescribing ability of a doctor caught abusing prescription drugs. The bill does not require the Medical Board be notified of physicians entering the program, and contains no consequences for a physician who fails rehab – no matter how often or even if patients are harmed. Drug abuse by a doctor should follow a “one strike and you’re out” policy. As soon as a drug-abusing doctor is identified, public safety demands that their prescription-writing privileges be revoked. If a participating doctor fails the program, or completes it but is subsequently discovered to still be abusing drugs, the Medical Board should be required to immediately hold a hearing to revoke the doctor’s license. We should have no tolerance for addicted doctors who repeatedly place their patients in harm’s way.”

California suffers from an epidemic of physician substance abuse. The California Medical Board estimates that 18% of doctors will have a substance abuse problem at some point during their careers, and 1-2% are abusing drugs or alcohol at any given point in time.

According to a previous review of records Consumer Watchdog obtained from the Medical Board through the Public Records Act, since 2003 the Medical Board disciplined just 149 doctors for substance abuse, 27 for using drugs or alcohol at work and 104 for DUIs. However, if up to 2,000 doctors are abusing drugs or alcohol at any given time, the vast majority of them are successfully escaping detection and consequences.

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Jamie Court
Jamie Court
Consumer Watchdog's President and Chairman of the Board is an award-winning and nationally recognized consumer advocate. The author of three books, he has led dozens of campaigns to reform insurance companies, financial institutions, energy companies, political accountability and health care companies.

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