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Addicted-doctors bill dies in committee -- and good riddance

California lobbyists attempt to get addicted doctors off the hook fails

Word reaches us today from Sacramento of the death of a shameful bill written by California medical lobbyists to resurrect a failed addiction treatment program for doctors. Patients should be happy to see the measure laid to rest.

We reported on this underhanded campaign by the California Medical Assn. last week. As we explained, the legislation at issue was aimed at restoring the discredited physicians' diversion program killed off by the California Medical Board in 2008. The bill died in committee today. Whether it will rise to walk again is unknown. 

The diversion program offered substance-abusing doctors a path to avoid discipline for unprofessional conduct, including patient injury, by letting them seek treatment instead. But it was not properly supervised by the Medical Board; five separate state audits gave it a failing grade. Among other flaws, participants weren't properly tracked to ensure that they were meeting their treatment obligations.

What was never suitably explained, moreover, was why any such program should be affiliated with the Medical Board, whose duties are to enforce standards of practice and discipline errant physicians, not to help them get treatment. Doctors have better capabilities to find and pay for mental health treatment than almost anyone else, observes Julie D'Angelo Fellmeth, the state's leading expert on medical discipline; they don't need help from the Medical Board. And the Medical Board, which is overstretched performing its main job, doesn't need an additional distraction.

Patient advocates also were concerned that the Medical Assn. would try to steer a contract for a state-sponsored treatment program to its own home-grown treatment organization, which is known as California Public Protection and Physician Health Inc. CPPPH bristles with veterans of the management of the old problematic diversion program, including the latter's former director

Another black mark against the legislation was that it aimed to undermine a November ballot measure sponsored by consumer advocates, which would mandate random drug tests of doctors. We have some real misgivings about this initiative; as we've reported, its anti-drug provisions are likely to be ineffective and they're a distraction from the measure's real goal -- reforming California's outdated and discriminatory medical malpractice law, which is known as MICRA.

Enacted in 1975 during an inflated malpractice insurance "crisis," MICRA effectively shuts the courthouse door to genuine victims of medical malpractice by making most malpractice lawsuits too costly to pursue. Even its creator now admits it was a blunder. Modernizing the law is where consumer and patient advocates need to concentrate their firepower, not on fatuous antidrug campaigns that won't help patients.

The death of AB 2346, the California Medical Assn.'s shameful drug treatment bill, will clear away some of the fog from the malpractice issue. But only some of it.

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