Sunday, July 1, 2007

Call Kurtis: Medical Board Investigation

An 82-page report shows the medical board is still failing to protect all of us from doctors who abuse alcohol and drugs.

Linda, Becky, Tina, Ken-- just some of the faces of people who believe they're living the consequences. If you looked beneath the clothes of some patients you would see something horrifying. They blame damages on a doctor who battled a dangerous addiction, and on the state's significant errors.

We know of more than 30-patients who say plastic surgeon Dr. Brian West made medical mistakes while treating them. The medical board knew Dr. West had a drinking problem, and had two drunk driving convictions. The first, after crashing his car in 2000 on the way to the hospital to treat a patient. The state had the power to take away his license to practice.

Instead, they let him enroll in the medical board's alcohol diversion program, a secret program where they're supposed to keep an eye on substance abusing doctors with random alcohol and drug tests in an effort to protect patients.

We learned, the state wasn't giving doctors those tests as often as required, and the testing was done on days doctors could anticipate. In November, with the Dr. West case in front of him, the head of the medical board admitted his agency failed.

While in the program, Dr. West cut into Becky Anderson so many times, she never looked or felt the same. Tina Minasian ended up with permanent scars from a body tuck that went wrong. Ken Mickulecky says his late wife Sharon was left with a massive flesh eating infection that kept her from getting the cancer treatment she needed.

“He put his finger without a glove in my wife's wound. When he came into examine her, she said smells like he's got alcohol on his breath. I said, no, doctors wouldn't do that,” said Ken.
Back in November Medical Board Executive Director Dave Thornton admitted the diversion program's problems of the past, but claimed they have been fixed.

“If your doctor is an alcoholic, and is in the program, he's not gaming the system. The system is working now the way it’s supposed to be working and the way it should have been working all of these years,” said Thornton.

Fast forward to a state audit that was just released. The audit states that what he says is not true. Although there have been some improvements, many doctors in diversion are still given drug and alcohol tests on days they can anticipate.

The report shows during the audit 13 doctors failed their tests. Yet, only three of them were immediately removed from practice.

“These are doctors who retain their license to practice medicine who are allowed to practice medicine, are chemically dependent. This board is supposed to be monitoring doctors, it doesn't,” said Julie D'angelo Felmeth, who has audited the program twice.

D'angelo Felmeth says there have been five audits in 27 years and each one shows the same exact issues with diversion-- A program she says has no room for error.

“They've had decades to fix these problems, which have been repeatedly identified for them and the problems and the programs have never been a priority to the medical board,” said D'angelo Felmeth.

In fact, a member of the board's executive committee even admitted it during a meeting last week. The problematic program caught the attention of state lawmakers in 2005 who passed a law stating the diversion program needs to be fixed by July of next year, or it'll go away.

Earlier this year State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, the head of the legislative committee that oversees the medical board, drafted a bill to keep the diversion program going for an additional two years.

“Ultimately saving doctors is better than disposing of them,” said Senator Ridley-Thomas.

We showed him our investigation, and he admitted what the state allowed to happen here is upsetting.

“It should be long before you get there, this problem is dealt with,” said Senator Ridley-Thomas.

He points out, his bill to extend the program was drafted before the latest audit, but instead of killing his legislation he says he'll beef it up, to hold the medical board accountable.

“Shape up this program, or it will not longer exist,” said Senator Ridley-Thomas.

That message went out two years ago, and the program still has major problems putting patients at risk.

“Let me simply say there's a new sheriff in town. And the chair of this committee will push for accountability, and that's essentially what we're doing now,” said Senator Ridley-Thomas.

Knowing this is the fifth audit in 27 years, and all of the same concerns keep coming up. Audit after audit some might question why should this program be extended for another two years.

“That's a legitimate question. This is a program under strict scrutiny. Either they perform as intended, or there is no defense for continuation. It requires a significant time on task to straighten some of these things out,” said Senator Ridley-Thomas.

That bill is still being talked about at the capitol. It has to pass the State Senate and Assembly by September, or the program is set to go away next July. It's supported by the medical board and the California Medical Association, which historically contributes a large amount of money to the campaigns of state lawmakers.

At the Beverly Hills Surgical Institute in Long Beach, Dr. West still practices, and has always refused to comment on this issue. The state has a case against him for what happened to several patients. It will be the fall before a judge decides if he should lose his license.
by Kurtis Ming

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