On June 29, 2005, Glendale police raided Blass' Arrowhead home and uncovered, of all things, a meth lab. Blass and his wife were arrested for making and selling crystal meth. The Arizona Medical Board revoked Blass' license one month later.

But if the board had monitored Blass sooner, it might have saved the life of one of his patients.

Blass had graduated from his third MAP probation eight years earlier, in 1997.

photo illustration by Giulio Sciorio
Dr. Gary Blass pleaded guilty in 2006 to running a meth lab. He'd graduated from the medical board's rehab program in 1997.
Dr. Gary Blass pleaded guilty in 2006 to running a meth lab. He'd graduated from the medical board's rehab program in 1997.


First in a series. Read the rest of "Prescription for Disaster" here.

When Colleen Lomax saw Blass' face on the front page of a newspaper after his arrest, she wasn't surprised. The Phoenix attorney knew the name Blass well, having represented the family of a man who died in his care. Doug Morton Jr.'s family won an undisclosed settlement in 2002, and that was without any proof that Blass had been impaired when he diagnosed Morton's heart attack as a sports injury.

"The nature of the malpractice was so egregious we thought all along, at some level, he had to be impaired," Lomax says.

Because the board wasn't drug-testing Blass, it's impossible to know when he began practicing under the influence, or whether, in fact, he was using when he saw Morton on the night of May 19, 1998.

That night, Morton, 36, felt a sharp pain in his left shoulder. Morton was a tough Midwesterner, a construction materials salesman who didn't much care for hospitals. After prodding from his fiancée and parents, he finally drove to the emergency room at Chandler Regional Hospital.

According to court records, Blass diagnosed Morton's pain as tennis shoulder — even though Morton had a full range of motion in the joint.

Lomax says Morton actually exhibited five of the seven classic signs of heart attack.

Morton tried to sleep that night, sitting upright in a recliner because of the throbbing. He assured his worried fiancée it was only a sore shoulder. That's what the doctor said. By sunrise, Morton had died a slow death from cardiac failure.

His son found him early the next morning, dead in his La-Z-Boy.

A heart attack killed Morton, less than 24 hours after his ER visit. Despite that grave error and four more errors in the ensuing years, the medical board still didn't submit Blass — an addict with a 20-year history of relapses — to drug tests.

The medical board instead mailed Blass a handful of disciplinary warnings for practicing sloppy medicine and keeping poor records. Then they allowed him to continue practicing, even after he unlawfully prescribed the narcotic OxyContin.

After the board stripped Blass' prescribing privileges, he apparently grew more desperate to secure drugs.

In 2006, Blass pleaded guilty in court to making meth at his house and was sentenced to probation. Two months into his probation, Blass allegedly pulled a gun on three Mesa police officers. According to court records, the officers subdued him without firing shots and then found marijuana on him.

On March 17, Blass' third drug-related criminal trial is scheduled to begin in Maricopa County Superior Court.

The deaths of Laura Migliano and Doug Morton Jr. have not been enough to get the attention of the Arizona Legislature, perhaps because of the lobbying power of the Arizona Medical Association.

Julie Fellmeth, a public interest attorney and law professor at the University of San Diego, says physician trade associations have been successful in limiting oversight on drug use among physicians. Fellmeth has been studying physician-addiction programs for more than 20 years. She was influential in the California Legislature's demand that the California Medical Board scrap its equivalent to Arizona's MAP program.

"Physician-rehab programs were all created years ago at the behest of physician trade associations. These are trade groups that want to protect physician licenses. Public protection is not their role," Fellmeth says.

David Landrith has been the Arizona Medical Association's chief lobbyist and policy expert for 17 years. Landrith wasn't a lobbyist 20 years ago, but he remembers the legislation from the 1980s that created today's MAP program.

And he is familiar with another bill he fought to make law 10 years ago. Dubbed the "Drunk Doctor Bill," it created confidential rehab for physicians who self-report their addictions. That law is the reason why certain cases of physician addiction don't surface on the medical board's Web site today.

"We're very supportive of the current program, and we do believe it falls within the effective standards in place around the country. We think it's great that the board would take the opportunity to mediate and return a valuable community resource back to the community," Landrith says.

But Jon Hinz of the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association says current laws favor the few physicians who are responsible for the majority of malpractice.

"Two percent of doctors are responsible for 75 percent of malpractice," Hinz says. "But if they keep passing these broad laws that protect all doctors, they're protecting the bad ones along with the good ones. By helping the very worst, they're lowering the level of the whole profession. They're literally opening the door for every quack who can't practice in another state to come here to Arizona."

Hinz says the laws can be traced beyond physician trade groups to malpractice insurance companies.

"There are countless measures to keep physician addiction as private as possible," he says. "They don't want monitoring because that protects them from civil liability. If the doctor was monitored and then hurt somebody while proven to be an addict, they would get sued."

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