By John Dickerson
In March New Times identified an addicted doctor who was practicing in Arizona without drug tests. The story (“The Doctor Is Out,” March 6, 2008) critiqued Arizona’s program for addicted physicians. Research showed three out of four doctors relapsed after the board stopped drug testing them. It pointed to Dr. Michael Mahl, a practicing physician, as a poster child for likely relapse.
In 2001 Mahl, a Tucson psychiatrist, confessed to being a cocaine addict and being “sexually compulsive” while running his group home for troubled boys. Mahl then moved to Chandler. The medical board reinstated his license and began drug testing him.
In August 2007, Mahl had graduated from five years of drug tests, as is standard for Arizona’s addicted doctors. In March, New Times wrote, “Mahl knows a number of physicians who finished the five years and then relapsed while seeing patients, but he’s optimistic that he won’t join them by relapsing.”
Unfortunately for Mahl and his patient, he did join them. Mahl relapsed on July 21, 2008, less than a year after the board stopped its drug tests. Mahl turned himself in to the board, which may not have otherwise known he relapsed.
The irony is that Mahl works as an addiction counselor. Shelly Trotter, whose husband was seeing Mahl for counseling related to meth addiction, called New Times the day his practice closed. “The only reason I’m kind of pissed about this is that this doctor had this hands-off approach to treating addicts,” Trotter claims. “He’d say, ‘It’s absolutely imperative that you understand that you’re going to relapse.’”
Trotter also claims Mahl prescribed increasing quantities of the narcotic Adderall to her husband. She doesn’t think the growing dependence on Adderall has helped her husband. “He asked us to pay in cash and recommended we not turn paperwork into our insurance company,” she claims.
Mahl relapsed after five years of intense drug testing ended. He’s not alone. In March New Times found that 45 of 50 physicians in Arizona’s Monitored Aftercare Program relapsed at some point during the MAP program. Three of every four doctors who graduated from MAP later relapsed once out from under the MAP program’s watchful eye.
Despite the findings, the MAP program has never been audited or critiqued by the state or even by the medical board that’s charged with protecting Arizona residents from dangerous doctors.
Roger Downey, spokesman for the Arizona Medical Board, says the five years of drug testing are mandated by law, not by the board itself. “If at any time we feel there are necessary changes to make [to the MAP program], we will do that. But at this point we’ve followed the legislative intent of the program at five years. It’s an expensive program for the doctor. Not to make any excuses for aberrant behavior, but it’s a serious drain on them financially.”
The Arizona Medical Association and other lobbying groups have fought to shape state law so that physicians are only drug tested for the five years. But some national experts suggest lifelong drug tests would protect the careers of physicians, as well as the safety of their patients.
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Downey added that physicians who relapse after the MAP drug testing ends – like Mahl – usually sign an agreement that their licenses will be revoked if they relapse a second time.
In March, Mahl stood at his Chandler office and told New Times that he didn’t need drug tests anymore. “Five years is adequate,” Mahl said. “I couldn’t imagine having to do it beyond five years.”
Four months later he informed the board of his relapse.
Mahl did not return phone messages left on his cell phone. Dozens of other addicted doctors have graduated from rehab and now practice medicine in Arizona without drug tests.