The stigma of addiction is alive and destructive in Nebraska. I can speak to the truth of this statement because I am an opioid addict in recovery. And if you happen to be a physician like I am, you better be prepared to have your profession and life destroyed. The Nebraska Medical Board and our legal system aggressively work to punish, not heal. This article intends to use my story to explain how Nebraska is more punitive than other states and to promote change in the medical and legal systems.
Substance use disorders — whether drug or alcohol — are diseases of the brain, which I did not know before I entered treatment. A national leader in addiction medicine, Dr. Robert DuPont, explained addiction to me in terms that make it easier to understand. He was the White House drug czar during the Nixon and Ford administrations and now is in private practice. I encourage those interested to read his book, “Chemical Slavery – Understanding Addiction and Stopping the Drug Epidemic.”
During addiction, the brain becomes “hijacked,” which then “exaggerates the need for the drug and minimizes the dangers associated with the use of the drug.” This is so affirming because the chemicals in my brain told me I was going to die if the opioid was not available. It was a horrible and terrifying way to live.
Some may question how a physician can become addicted. The rate of addiction in physicians is higher than in the general population as this disease does not care how much education you have. What varies is the consequences different professions face or what drug was involved. One of many examples was the late Rush Limbaugh, who suffered from such a severe addiction to Oxycodone that he damaged his cochlea and became deaf. Yet he kept his job and did not face the system that is in place in Nebraska to destroy the careers of our physicians.
So, here is how the Nebraska Medical Board differs from other states. We are one of only three states that do not have a Physicians Health Program. The purpose of a PHP is to protect the provider from the medical board allowing the physician to receive treatment, agree to monitor and return to their practice. In North Carolina, their PHP has helped over 4,000 physicians, and my license is listed as active. In Nebraska, with no PHP, I am active on probation. That is a prohibitive term for anyone that may want to hire me. As an example, the Bryan Hospital System does not hire physicians who are on probation. These discriminatory restrictions persist even though it has been more than 52 months since I last used a narcotic.
The North Carolina Medical Board president recently sent an email to all licensed physicians. 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 goes on to say to licensees, “the board values their health and well-being.” The North Carolina Medical Board’s proactive approach is one way to remove the stigma and encourage treatment. This is not how a physician is treated in Nebraska.
Once our board becomes aware, the physician faces suspension or revocation of their license, and when reinstated, we are placed on probation for at least five years. My addiction progressed, and treatment was delayed because I was isolated. The Nebraska Medical Board and the Office of the Attorney General treat physicians as if we are bad people and label us as morally corrupt.
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 the cockpit if they agree to monitor. Physicians are required to spend three months, and I returned to my license on suspension, a U.S. attorney ready to indict. My medical practice closed, forcing thousands of my patients to find a new medical providers. It is my mission 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 do my part to remove the mark of disgrace that has been placed by society, our medical board and the legal system.
Jeffrey L. Fraser is a family physician.
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