Nebraska needs to heal, not punish, physicians with addictions
Hydrocodone is a popular prescription semi-synthetic opioid that is used to treat moderate to severe pain. Hydrocodone is said to be one of the most common recreational prescription drugs in America. (Getty Images)
The stigma of addiction is alive and destructive in the state of Nebraska. I am an addict in recovery, and I am a physician. In Nebraska, that is a bad combination because there is a system in place that can destroy careers. The Nebraska Board of Medicine and our legal system aggressively work to punish addicts, not heal. My intent is to use my story to explain how Nebraska is more punitive than other states and to promote change in the medical and legal systems. I am not an expert, but I am learning, and I do have a story.
My drug of choice was hydrocodone, a semi-synthetic opioid derived from opium. As I look back, I regret taking my first pill during treatment of prostate cancer. I had no prior history of addiction, and I did not drink alcohol, but my brain was almost immediately consumed by the need for more hydrocodone. I knew nothing about the disease of addiction before I entered treatment so I sought out experts such as Dr. Robert DuPont. He was the White House drug czar during two presidential administrations.
He explained to me that during addiction, the brain becomes hijacked, which then “exaggerates the need and minimizes the dangers.,” of the addictive substance. This was so affirming because the chemicals in my brain told me I was going to die if the drug was not available. It was a horrible and terrifying way to live. And I was horrible, and my behaviors were reprehensible.
I am a licensed physician in Nebraska and North Carolina. These two states show the differences in approach to substance use disorders. Nebraska is one of only three states without a Physicians Health Program (PHP). The purpose of a PHP is to protect the provider’s license from the medical board, allowing the physician to receive treatment, agree to monitoring and return to practice. The North Carolina PHP has helped over 4,000 physicians, and as a member, my medical license in North Carolina is listed as “Active.”
In Nebraska, with no PHP, I am “Active, on Probation.“ This is a prohibitive term. Bryan Medical Center and all its affiliated clinics will not hire a physician on probation. This discriminatory restriction persists even with my history of over 58 months of recovery.
The president of the North Carolina Medical Board, Dr. John Rusher, sent an email earlier this year to all licensed physicians in that state. His message was, “do not wait to seek help for substance use. … Anyone who is struggling should know they can seek help without fear of reprisal from the board.” He continued, “…the board values their health and wellbeing.” The North Carolina Medical Board, with a PHP in place, has a proactive approach that removes stigma and encourages recovery.
This is not how a physician is treated in Nebraska. Once our board becomes aware, the physician with an addiction will face a license suspension or revocation, and when reinstated, we are placed on probation for at least five years. My addiction progressed and treatment was delayed because I felt isolated.
My monitoring agreement with the North Carolina PHP will end April 24, 2023, which represents five years since I left treatment. My probation in Nebraska will not end until July 25, 2024, which is over six years. During suspension, Nebraska does no monitoring, so I hired a private physician to order random drug screens. North Carolina acknowledges this, but Nebraska does not. I have asked our medical board to receive the same term of monitoring, but I have been denied. A glaring example of how a PHP works.
I am a proud alumnus of Talbott Recovery Campus in Atlanta, Georgia, where they use a comprehensive program to treat physicians and pilots from all over the world. Pilots complete a five-week program and return to their profession if they agree to be monitored. Physicians are required to spend three months in the program, and I returned to my medical license suspended, with the U.S. Attorney’s Office ready to indict and my medical practice closed, forcing thousands of my patients to find a new medical provider.
It is my goal and that of others to have a PHP formed in Nebraska to protect the public and prevent physicians from losing their careers. Addiction is a disease, not a moral failure, and I will continue to work to remove the mark of disgrace that has been placed on the addicted by society, our medical board and the legal system.
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