By John Dickerson
New Times reporting played a key role in the potential suspension of an Arizona physician’s medical license. The physician, Dr. Elliott Schmerler, was named in the April 10, 2008 feature “Dr. Loophole.” Though banned from performing cosmetic surgery in Nevada, Schmerler slipped through a licensing loophole to perform the same surgeries in Arizona, according to staff and a former patient of his.
At its August 5 meeting the Arizona Homeopathic Board requested that Dr. Schmerler voluntarily suspend his license while the board continues its investigation. That investigation was launched as a result of New Times findings, according to board meeting minutes.
New Times named Schmerler as one of at least six doctors who’ve come to practice in Arizona – after having their medical licenses pulled in other states.
Because Schmerler was once booted by another state medical board, he cannot secure a conventional MD license in Arizona. But Arizona’s alternative or “homeopathic” medical board routinely licenses doctors who’ve been booted from other states. Those homeopathic doctors then bear the initials MD(h) instead of MD – a subtle distinction that’s lost on most patients.
The homeopathic license arms disgraced doctors with conventional prescribing privileges. Homeopathic doctors aren’t allowed to perform conventional surgeries (unless of course they have a conventional MD license in Arizona), but New Times found some Arizona homeopathic doctors use their “alternative” license to practice the very conventional surgeries that got them booted from their previous state.
Schmerler is a case in point. He was expressly banned from practicing cosmetic surgery in Nevada. Because of a trail of patients who claim he maimed them and a past prison sentence for tax fraud, Schmerler can’t even apply to be an MD in Arizona. But he applied for and quickly received his MD(h), thanks to the homeopathic board.
Despite Schmerler’s long and controversial career as a cosmetic surgeon in Nevada, Arizona’s homeopathic board didn’t ask Schmerler if he would try to practice cosmetic surgery on Arizonans with his MD(h) license.
At one point Schmerler even presented the board with a business card reading “A Surgical Art” – a cosmetic surgery practice. The board still didn't take action. New Times called “A Surgical Art” in March, and a staff member there confirmed that Schmerler performs all sorts of surgeries that are illegal with only an MD(h) license – from liposuctions to tummy tucks.
It seemed clear enough that Schmerler – who could never practice as an MD in Arizona – slipped right through the MD(h) loophole so he could continue with the same profitable surgeries he’s banned from performing in Nevada.
At its May 13 meeting the homeopathic board’s executive director, Chris Springer, announced an investigation into Schmerler.
“In her review of the pending matter, Mrs. Springer informed the Board that she had initiated this investigation based on statements made in a recent New Times article. In that article, the reporter had stated that office personnel working at Dr. Schmerler’s clinic, A Surgical Art, LLC, indicated to the reporter that Dr. Schmerler provided cosmetic surgery. Mrs. Springer indicated that her own call to the clinic had not confirmed this allegation,” board meeting minutes read.
Schmerler then provided the board with a written statement, claiming he only worked as a surgeon’s assistant during surgical procedures. But within weeks a former patient of Schmerler’s contacted the board, confirming that it was Schmerler himself who performed her liposuction procedure in May of 2007. He didn't work as an assistant in her procedure, she says.
Upon hearing the patient corroboration at its August 5 meeting, the board voted 6-0 to continue its investigation and to ask Schmerler for a voluntary six-month suspension.
While the board has not yet addressed it, Schmerler's advertising himself as an MD in Arizona is also in question. He is not a licensed MD in Arizona, but his place of business uses the initials MD and MD(h).
A Surgical Art's phone number, which once connected to a receptionist, now connects directly to Schmerler's cell phone. In a phone conversation today Schmerler said the first New Times story damaged him. When asked about inaccuracies, Schmerler did not identify any facts that were wrong with the story.
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He also said the board hasn’t actually done anything to his license yet. “This is just an investigation, and it’s really preliminary for you to print anything at this point. There’s been no facts at all, and I think for you to go print something at this stage in the game is very unprofessional,” Schmerler said.
Asked if he had performed illegal surgeries, Schmerler replied, “I can’t really discuss that with you because this is the early stage of an investigation. Why don’t you wait and let this investigation by the board proceed its natural course?”
Arizona’s Homeopathic Medical Board is one of only three such alternative medical boards in the country. It licenses more homeopathic physicians than the other two homeopathic boards combined (Nevada and Connecticut).
This state's homeopathic board is allowed to overlook previous discipline against physicians in other states. Its homeopathic license also gives more prescribing power than alternative licenses in some other states.