Medical Board Moves Toward New Substance Abuse Program. Get It Right, Please

At one time, the California Medical Board had a "diversion program" that allowed physicians caught abusing drugs  and alcohol to choose a secret rehab program to avoid discipline. And the same addicted doctors used this program. Over and over again. All it did was protect bad doctors and harm their patients, which is why it was thankfully abolished nearly eight years ago. 

But like Freddy Krueger, it might be returning if the latest recommendations from the Board are read carefully. At Thursday's Board meeting, I testified as a patient advocate from Consumer Watchdog, telling them I was skeptical that it was even a good idea for them to be reviving this long-dead corpse.

But I also told them if they chose to move forward, patient safety should always trump physician confidentiality, and doctors needed to lose their license if they are terminated from the program. Among other things, I said that if complaints of possible substance abuse are reported, they must be made a priority and any enforcement should be handled expeditiously. Most importantly, any program should not in anyway be connected to the California Medical Association or anyone connected to previous diversion program. Allowing the CMA or their allies to be associated with any program would shred the credibility of the plan from the beginning. 

Oddly, the Board seemed to be shocked, simply shocked that I, and a slew of other patient advocates who also spoke against any new program, would think that it was moving toward - or moving backward - to create a diversion program. Members said  that staff recommendations, which they later approved, were not about starting a program, but just "legislative framework" - for a new program. 

First, why would the Board create language for possible legislation unless the next step was to eventually create a program? Second, the staff said the purpose of the recommendations was "to discuss what elements are necessary in a physician health program in order for it to be a program that assists physicians with substance abuse problems..." Can't imagine why critics would be confused.

In August, the Board brought in doctors from Arizona and Colorado to testify about their states’ programs to confidentially treat substance abusing doctors. Supporters of diversion programs argue that it’s in the best interests of patients to get addicted doctors into treatment. But doctors with substance abuse problems are free to enter one of countless existing rehab programs now, why allow them to avoid any penalties? 

The real question is whether the Medical Board will sanction a program that lets doctors keep their addiction problems secret and avoid consequences when they fail or protect the public. The jury is still out on that one. 

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