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Addicted doctors still treat patients

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  • Patients claim addicted doctor botched surgery
  • Doctors group says more than 8,000 doctors in U.S. are being treated for addiction
  • California may shut down program for addicted doctors because of abuses
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By Randi Kaye
CNN
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SACRAMENTO, California (CNN) -- A woman who says she had to forgo cancer treatment because of botched surgery by a California doctor says she was never made aware the doctor was being treated for alcoholism and had been convicted for driving under the influence of alcohol.

Becky Anderson received a breast reconstruction from Dr. Brian West, a California plastic surgeon, in September 2000. Becky, who was suffering from breast cancer, says she had to forgo cancer treatment while battling complications from West's surgery.

Now she is dying of cancer. She had no idea when she let West treat her that he had been convicted for driving under the influence in 1987 and had been arrested for a second DUI, for which he was later convicted, while on the way to treat her.

She claims he lied about the DUI, blaming a missed appointment with her on a car accident. She sued the doctor for negligence and malpractice. He never admitted fault, but settled with her for $250,000. Video Watch "AC 360" investigate doctors in rehab »

West is an alcoholic, according to a Medical Board of California decision, and a member of the state's Physician Diversion Program.

The program keeps the doctors' identities private, so it allowed him to continue to treat patients, even operate on them, while he was secretly getting treatment for his addiction.

West declined CNN's repeated requests for an interview. But his lawyer told CNN that West never treated a patient while under the influence of alcohol.

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In California, the state medical association says there are between 200 and 400 doctors in the diversion program on any given day.

A study by the Federation of State Physician Health Programs found about one percent of all physicians practicing in the United States are in confidential treatment. That's about 8,000 doctors whose patients may have no idea they are addicts.

The program may soon be shut down. Five audits since 1982 found a string of failures. In some cases physicians appointed people who work for them as their monitors. In other cases doctors could easily know in advance when a "random" drug test was going to take place.

Julie D'Angelo of the Center for Public Interest Law, who did one of the audits in 2004, says "the drug testing was, in a word, ridiculous."

"They were using untrained collectors who were not collecting on the random date generated by the computer. Instead, they were routinely doing it on days the physicians could anticipate," D'Angelo says.

The Medical Board of California, which oversees the program, wants to shut it down in July. The board ruled last year that it failed to protect patients. But the California Medical Association, a physicians advocacy group, is fighting to keep the program running, and to keep the names of doctors enrolled confidential.

The association's president, Joe Dunn, told CNN, "We believe very strongly this is the absolute best way to ensure patient safety. We need to get physicians out of the shadows."

Dunn believes if the program is shut down in July, doctors will continue to feed their addiction privately and not get help. He argues, "Without a diversion program, no one knows. Patients don't know. Health professionals who could help don't know."

Nearly every state has a similar program, and a recent nationwide study by researchers in cooperation with the Federation of State Physician health programs found that nationwide 80 percent of the doctors in the program recover from their addiction and stay clean.

Still, Ken Mikulecky wants to see the California program shut down.

His wife, Sharon, had a mastectomy after learning she had breast cancer. Ken Mikulecky says West performed breast reconstruction on his wife by using stomach muscle. He says her incision became infected and left a gaping hole in her abdomen. Just like Becky Anderson, Sharon Mikulecky had to put off cancer treatment for about a year. She died in 2003.

The Mikuleckys say they were not aware of West's DUI convictions or that he was enrolled in the state's rehabilitation program, which required outside treatment but let him continue operating on patients.

Ken Mikulecky told CNN, "When that person's right to privacy hurts other people, harms other people, that should not be allowed to happen. ... She told me several times that she could smell alcohol on his breath. ... Til the day I die, I gotta live with that, and that hurts pretty good, because I didn't believe my wife."

California's Medical Board says West flunked out of the diversion program and was placed on probation. He was not allowed to practice medicine for one year, but that time has come and gone. Today, his lawyer says West is back in the program and has been "in recovery for years."

CNN confirmed he is back in business, operating on patients in Beverly Hills, California.

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Ken Mikulecky, who is working with West's former patients and the state attorney general on a petition to have his license revoked, is convinced his wife would have had a better chance of surviving had her doctor not been an addict.

Still, he says, he's forgiven the doctor. "That's between him and God. I got my own soul to look after. I just want him to stop." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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