SANTA MONICA, CA – A record high 46 doctors were disciplined for substance abuse last year according to a report prepared for a meeting of the California Medical Board today. Yet that record-breaking number represents just a fraction of the number of doctors likely to be abusing substances in California at any given time, said advocates with Consumer Watchdog Campaign.
“The California Medical Board only catches and disciplines a fraction of the drunk and drugged doctors practicing on patients today. Even when doctors are disciplined, patients remain in harm’s way while enforcement actions take years to complete. This November, California voters have the chance to upend the status quo and save lives with Proposition 46, which would require random drug testing to catch substance-abusing doctors before patients are harmed.” said Carmen Balber of Consumer Watchdog Campaign.
Medical providers and their insurance companies have already contributed upwards of $36 million to defeat Proposition 46.
The California Medical Board has reported that expert estimates of 1-2% of doctors abusing drugs or alcohol at any given point in time. This means that up to 2,580 physicians are currently abusing drugs and alcohol in California.
Many substance-abusing doctors cause direct harm to patients. For example, Dr. David Chao, the former San Diego Chargers head team physician, could be responsible for the May 2012 suicide of former linebacker Junior Seau. Dr. Chao has a long record of alcohol abuse, including two DUIs, at least twenty malpractice lawsuits from Chargers players and members of the public, an investigation by the DEA into prescriptions Dr. Chao allegedly wrote to himself, and accusations that he enabled his former partner’s prescription drug addiction. Dr. Chao is currently on probation for gross negligence and a complaint with the Medical Board regarding Junior Seau has been filed. However, Dr. Chao is still practicing medicine.
Proposition 46, also known as the Troy and Alana Pack Patient Safety Act, would require random drug and alcohol testing of doctors modeled after the Federal Aviation Administration’s testing of airline pilots, and testing after an adverse event in a hospital. Prop 46 would also:
• Require physicians to report suspected drug or alcohol abuse at work by a colleague
• Index for inflation the medical negligence damage cap set by the legislature in California in 1975
• Mandate that physicians check the state’s prescription drug database before prescribing narcotics and other addictive drugs to first-time patients
Leading experts in patient safety have called for physician drug testing, including Department of Health and Human Services inspector general Daniel R. Levinson, and Lucian Leape, founder of the National Patient Safety Foundation and an author of the Institute of Medicine’s seminal 1999 report on medical negligence, To Err Is Human: Building a Safer Health System.
Today’s news comes on the heels of several doctors whose discipline by the Medical Board for abusing drugs or alcohol was recently announced. For example:
• Dr. Richard Wallrath
Bakersfield, CA (April 2014): Dr. Wallrath was a gynecologist already on probation for negligent medical care when the California Medical Board finally discovered he was abusing and selling prescription drugs. Dr. Wallrath was placed on 5 years probation in 2005 for multiple incidences of negligence. During that probation, he went on a drug abusing and selling spree. Dr. Wallrath wrote himself prescriptions for Ambien, Norco, and Vicodin, “doctor-shopped” to obtain prescriptions from other physicians, and created pseudonyms he prescribed to as well. Even after the Medical Board finally caught on, it took a year for Dr. Wallrath to admit to the charges and lose his license.
• Dr. Jose Luis Flores
Fresno, CA (April 2014): Dr. Flores had a history of repetitive violent episodes, repeated arrests for possession of narcotics, being under the influence (including DUIs), and assault and battery. During a Medical Board investigation into his gross negligence with patient care, Dr. Flores admitted to abusing alcohol, cocaine and amphetamines for many years. Combined with his pattern of incomplete and sometimes nonexistent record keeping, the investigation found that Dr. Flores' actions strongly suggested the ongoing sale, abuse, and inappropriate prescribing of narcotics. In April 2014, Dr. Flores finally surrendered his medical license.
• Dr. Geoffrey Booth
Sacramento, CA (December 2013): In July 2006, two of Dr. Geoffrey Booth's supervisors confronted him about unusual prescriptions he had written for Vicodin; Dr. Booth said he was "extremely stressed out" and took a leave of absence. Dr. Booth then entered the Board's diversion program but was terminated from it less than a month later. In February 2007, he was arrested for possession of cocaine, a felony, and he pled no contest. The Medical Board began an investigation in August 2007. Dr. Booth admitted that he had used Vicodin "heavily at times over the past three years due to work stresses." As a result, in 2009, Dr. Booth was placed on 5 year probation and agreed to refrain from prescribing any dangerous narcotics. In 2012, the Medical Board found that Dr. Booth was prescribing, and ordering physician assistants to prescribe, Vicodin, Codeine, Oxycodone, and other heavy narcotics, in violation of his probation. The Medical Board finally acted over a year later, but instead of revoking Dr. Booth's license because of his blatant and repeated violations of probation, only an additional year of probation was added.
For more about Proposition 46 and the fight to protect patient safety, please visit www.yeson46.org
Paid for by Consumer Watchdog Campaign - Yes on 45 and 46, a coalition of consumer advocates, attorneys and nurses. 777 S. Figueroa St., Ste. 4050, Los Angeles, CA 90017. Major funding by Consumer Watchdog and Greene, Broillet & Wheeler, LLP.