Doctors Disciplined...Too Lightly?
Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team
OKLAHOMA CITY -- First, the good news -- more than 96 percent of doctors currently practicing in Oklahoma have never been disciplined by the State Medical Board.
Now, the bad -- almost four percent have been disciplined. What's more, a special Oklahoma Impact Team investigation shows some have been disciplined numerous times and, despite that, remain licensed to practice medicine in the state.
"If somebody's got a problem," said former board member Gary Brooks, "they need to be taken out of circulation until they get it taken care of."
Brooks is a well-known malpractice attorney in Oklahoma City who was appointed to the Medical Board in 2003 by then-Governor Brad Henry and came off the Board last summer. He feels that the Board, as a whole, goes too easy on the doctors who are brought in for discipline -- especially doctors with substance abuse problems.
"If Joe runs a stop sign, then we're going to punish him," explained Brooks. "But, if Fred runs a stop sign and comes in and says 'I ran the stop sign because I'm an addict,' then the Board says, 'Well, wait--he's an addict. That's what addicts do.'"
Historically, doctors are known to be more susceptible than most professions to drug and alcohol addiction. Experts in the field estimate 15 percent of physicians struggle with chemical dependency. Among physicians with disciplinary histories, the percentage is even higher.
The are currently 228 actively licensed doctors in Oklahoma who have been disciplined at least once by the State Medical Board. Of those, more than a quarter (63) have addiction at the root of their troubles.
For some of them, the addiction has gotten them into trouble multiple times:
-Dr. Bruce Gilmore, an internist in Davis, was disciplined four times between 2001 and 2008
-Dr. Michael Beason, a psychiatrist in Shreveport, but still maintaining a license to practice in Oklahoma, was disciplined six times between 1985 and 2000
-Dr. Lynn Baggett, an addiction medicine specialist in Ada, was disciplined seven times between 1989 and 2003
Punishments for these doctors ranged from probation, to suspension, to revocation of their medical licenses, but all are currently licensed and practicing.
In an email, Dr. Beason stated: "The reason I was allowed to retain a license was because mine was of a personal medical issue that never resulted in a single instance of patient harm."
Beason says, although he maintains his Oklahoma medical license, he would have to have a special hearing with the State Medical Board before he could actually practice in the state again.
"I have been given a number of chances," admitted Dr. Baggett, in a recent phone interview. "With any disease, there's going to be a spectrum of recovery. Some, like me, have more difficulty."
Baggett told us the reason he got caught so many times was not because patients were reporting him, but because the state monitoring program was detecting his relapses. [The monitoring program] is outstanding," said Dr. Baggett, "You transgress the boundaries, they're going to catch you."
Oklahoma's physician recovery program -- formally known as Oklahoma Health Professionals Program -- requires regular attendance at meetings and performs regular drug testing. Baggett says it helped him tremendously, even though the effects didn't always last.
"I'd straighten up each time, and I'd get my license back," Baggett explained, "and then I'd forget where I came from and I'd relapse."
Dr. Baggett is now certified in addiction medicine and is trying to help others who are dealing with many of the same issues he has. He says next month will mark eight years of being free from alcohol and drugs. He thanks the Board for not giving up on him, but also for forcing him to get straight.
"I believe the State Board does a good job of protecting the public," Baggett concluded. "I would never relapse and go back, at this point."
Dr. Kenneth Kirk has reportedly been clean and sober for the past seven years, but his case history is more controversial. A hospitalist in Tulsa, Dr. Kirk was disciplined "just" twice by the Board, in 2005 and 2008. But it's everything that happened before those actions that caused Gary Brooks, during Kirk's 2006 reinstatement hearing, to bluntly question his fitness to continue practicing.
"Why would we want to give him this chance, considering how many times he's failed?"
Now five years later, Brooks remembers being concerned that, based on Dr. Kirk's history, giving him his license back was a bad idea.
"I felt like letting him continue, reinstating his license," Brooks clarified, "was putting the public at risk."
According to records pulled from Dr. Kirk's public file, his professional troubles date back to the early 1980's and intensified over the next twenty years:
1980-1984 -- While at OU Medical School, Kirk was arrested for possession and intent to distribute; he later admitted he was planning to deal drugs to other students
1988 -- completed 30 days of inpatient treatment for alcohol abuse
1989 -- completed 6 months of inpatient treatment for alcohol and drug abuse
1994 -- completed 3 months of inpatient treatment for alcohol and drug abuse
2003 -- was abusing Phentermine (20 tablets a day), vodka (a liter a day), Xanax (10 pills a day), Phendametrazine (15 pills a day), Ambien (2 to 4 pills per night), Sonata (4 pills per night), and Hydrocodone (8 to 10 pills a day)
2004 -- fired by employer, Omni Medical Group in Tulsa, for repeatedly violating company policy prohibiting him from prescribing drugs to a co-worker; the co-worker subsequently overdosed on the drugs Kirk had prescribed for him, and died
2004 -- entered treatment for fourth time, and was diagnosed with multiple addictions and mental disorders, including alcohol dependence, poly substance dependence, bipolar disorder, compulsive overeating and spending addiction
In 2005, Dr. Kirk went before the State Medical Board for the first time. The members revoked his license.
The earliest that a doctor whose license has been revoked can apply for reinstatement is one year later. In July, 2006, Dr. Kirk returned, pleading with the Board for another chance.
"I can assure the Board," Dr. Kirk testified, "I know I have no chances left."
Despite concerns about Dr. Kirk's competency and morality, voiced by Board staff in a hearing just two months earlier, the Board voted, by a five to four margin, to give Kirk his license back.
"It's very hard for the board members to make those decisions," said Lyle Kelsey, executive director of the State Medical Board, "and I think we see four to five splits quite often."
Kelsey believes, generally, board members do a good job of protecting the public from risky doctors, and feels they are hardest on doctors with drug and alcohol addictions.
In Kirk's case, Kelsey says, the Board's majority went against staff's recommendation, although he notes that they still sent the doctor a strong message. Immediately after the vote, board member Eric Frische can be heard in the audio recording of the meeting addressing Kirk as he got up to leave:
"You lucked out by one vote. Don't come back here."
But, two years later, Dr. Kirk was back. He'd violated his probation by authorizing more than 350 prescriptions for his patients. Under the terms of his 5-year probation, he was not to write or, in any way, authorize any prescriptions.
At the July, 2008 Board meeting addressing the violation, Dr. Kirk threw himself on the mercy of the Board:
"I realize I've made a profound mistake," Kirk told board members. "I was just trying to take care of my patients...I don't believe I did anything to cause any harm."
The Board's compliance officer, Tom Sosby, testified that he didn't believe Kirk had intentionally violated his probation. Sosby said, because Kirk wasn't physically writing the prescriptions, the doctor didn't realize he was doing anything wrong.
Some of the board members were not impressed with Dr. Kirk's explanation, but still, in a unanimous action, the Board agreed to suspend his license for just 30 days, fine him $10,000, and make his probation indefinite.
"In my mind," said former board member Dr. Billy Stout, "I think that was probably about right."
Dr. Stout chaired the Board at that time. He says part of the rationale for allowing doctors like Kirk who are in recovery to keep practicing is that they often become better doctors.
"Statistically, most of them do a good job," Stout stated. "There are a lot of extremely well thought of physicians in the community that are in recovery."
Dr. Kirk was back before the Board in May, 2011, this time to request that members modify his probation so he could again prescribe drugs for his patients.
In another contentious hearing, Kirk's supporters testified about his current record of sobriety, the fact that he remained in recovery, and argued, therefore, it was safe to allow him to write prescriptions again.
Attorney Brooks said Kirk's probation violation from three years earlier still bothered him, bringing this response from the doctor:
"Mr. Brooks, that was a profound mistake on my part--I would agree with that... [but] I can assure you, I did learn my lesson."
In another split vote -- this time 4 to 3 -- the Board approved Kirk's request, allowing him to write prescriptions for clinic and hospital inpatients.
We asked Dr. Lanny Anderson, who runs the state's physician recovery program (Oklahoma Health Professionals Program), if he thought the right decisions had been made in Dr. Kirk's case: "No. I'm shocked at it," Anderson said candidly.
Dr. Anderson is a strong believer in giving doctors with addiction issues second and even third chances. He says most physicians in his program -- up to 90 percent, he says -- successfully recover and can maintain their medical practice. He says addiction is a disease and there are going to be doctors who relapse.
That is how he apparently viewed Dr. Kirk in 2006, when he testified on behalf of his reinstatement request. But, looking at the case with fresh eyes five years later, he told us, he feels differently.
"Today, I would have just said, I don't think this guy ought to get off early."
Former board member Brooks believes allowing doctors like Kirk to recover at the same time that they're still treating patients puts the public at risk.
"I think [the doctors on the Board] feel like, ya know, we can regulate this process and the public's going to be okay," Brooks explained, "and my feeling is we shouldn't' take any risks with the public."
We tried numerous times, via phone and in person, to speak with Dr. Kirk for this story. Our requests were ignored. Similarly, we requested that Dr. Kirk's employer give us a comment for the story and explain their reasoning for hiring Dr. Kirk. They said they would give us a comment, but never did, failing to respond to several follow-up requests.