CA Bill Still Shelters Doctors Who Fail Drug Tests

Would you want to know if your doctor was in addiction treatment and failed a drug test? Shouldn't he have to tell the hospital he works at? What about the state Medical Board responsible for disciplining physicians who place patients at risk?

The California Medical Association is pushing a bill that would let doctors keep it secret if they fail a drug test. The bill, SB 1177 by Senator Galgiani, would create a doctor substance abuse program at the California Medical Board. It passed a key Assembly committee this morning.

If the Legislature doesn’t get this right, California will end up reliving the past with doctors who cycle in and out of treatment, continuing to practice medicine while their patients and employers have no idea they are dealing with an addict.

Tina Minasian knows personally what happens when substance abuse programs don't work. She is disfigured and in pain more than a decade after being mutilated by an Orange County surgeon who she learned too late had been in and out of the Medical Board's failed "diversion" program.

For 27 years, the California Medical Board's diversion program that allowed drug and alcohol-addicted doctors to hide substance abuse problems from their patients. That program created a revolving door for drunk and high physicians who went in and out of treatment, avoiding discipline while their patients were unaware of their ongoing problem. Its failures forced the Board to close its doors in 2008.

Now, state law sets “Uniform Standards” for treatment of medical professionals that require disclosure to state licensing boards and employers when they fail to meet any provision of a substance abuse program, including a failed drug test, and require medical professionals to stop work while they're being evaluated for substance abuse.

Senator Galgiani and the CMA insist that SB 1177 complies with these Standards. But they refuse to fix language in the bill that directly contradicts them. SB 1177 does not ensure the public that the former diversion program’s worst outcomes will not be repeated, or that a new program will comply with the Uniform Standards.

For example, the Standards require that the Board be notified if a physician fails a drug test or any other provision of a drug treatment program. However, SB 1177 states that the Board should be notified only when a physician “withdraws or is terminated” – meaning quits or gets fired – from the program, not when they don’t meet the requirements of a treatment program including random drug testing.

Studies show that doctors are just as likely as the rest of us to abuse alcohol, and more likely to abuse the prescription drugs they have easy daily access to. But when doctors abuse or are addicted to drugs and alcohol, they place not just themselves, but their patients at risk. They must be held to a higher standard.

To prevent history from repeating itself, SB 1177 must be crystal clear that any program will comply with all of the Uniform Standards. So far, Senator Galgiani and the CMA refuse to accept the small changes consumer groups are requesting to ensure the Uniform Standards are met and patients will be protected from harm.

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