A New Times “Prescription for Disaster” story leads to an investigation of a homeopathic doctor while another doc relapses

All is apparently not well with two Arizona physicians, both subjects of recent New Times stories.

One doctor, a plastic surgeon named Elliott Schmerler, is under investigation by the state's homeopathic medical board, for performing surgeries not allowed by his license. And Michael Mahl, a medical doctor and admitted addict, relapsed into drug use less than one year after the Arizona Medical Board stopped drug-testing him.

The two physicians answer to separate medical boards, both of which were examined in the series "Prescription for Disaster."

A story in the series examined a loophole in state law that allows troubled doctors to practice in Arizona with homeopathic licenses ("Dr. Loophole," April 10).

Arizona's Homeopathic Board of Medical Examiners is legally allowed to overlook red-flag concerns that disqualify physicians from practicing here as conventional M.D.s.

If a doctor's troubled past prevents him or her from securing a conventional M.D. license in Arizona, then he or she could still be licensed as a homeopathic doctor — bearing the initials M.D.(h) instead of M.D. The doctor can then practice some conventional medicine with the "alternative" license.

Dr. Elliott Schmerler, who's banned from performing cosmetic surgery in Nevada, was named as one of at least six doctors who've come to practice in Arizona as M.D.(h)s — after having their medical licenses pulled or restricted in other states.

Schmerler served time in prison for tax fraud and his Nevada medical license was revoked. As such, Arizona law disqualifies him from getting a conventional M.D. license here. But Arizona's homeopathic board gave him an M.D.(h) license in January 2007.

Schmerler appeared to be practicing conventional medicine (cosmetic surgery) with his "alternative" license — effectively utilizing the licensing loophole. Staff at A Surgical Art, his Scottsdale cosmetic surgery practice, confirmed that Schmerler performed liposuctions and tummy tucks.

But homeopathic physicians aren't licensed by law to perform significant surgeries — such as liposuction or breast augmentation — unless they hold a conventional license in Arizona.

At its May 13 meeting, the homeopathic board's executive director, Chris Springer, announced an investigation into Schmerler, as a result of the New Times findings.

Schmerler has since provided the board with a written statement, claiming he worked only as a surgeon's assistant during surgeries. But a former patient of Schmerler's also has contacted the board, claiming Schmerler performed her liposuction procedure in May 2007. Schmerler didn't work as an assistant in that patient's procedure, according to board records.

At its August 5 meeting, the homeopathic board voted 6-0 to continue its investigation and to ask Schmerler for a voluntary six-month suspension. At its next meeting, the board will announce whether Schmerler agreed to suspend his license. If not, they may vote to suspend it involuntarily.

A Surgical Art's phone number, which once connected to a receptionist, now connects directly to Schmerler's personal phone. In a phone conversation, Schmerler said, "I think for you to go print something at this stage in the game is very unprofessional."

Asked if he had performed illegal cosmetic 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?"

Springer said she could not comment on Schmerler's case because the board's investigation is ongoing. She added that the board is currently implementing a number of changes, as suggested by the state's compliance performance audit.

Arizona's Homeopathic Board of Medical Examiners is one of only three such alternative medical boards in the nation. Arizona licenses more homeopathic physicians than the other two U.S. homeopathic boards combined (Nevada and Connecticut). Arizona's board was created to license and monitor practitioners of alternative medicine.

In March, New Times identified Dr. Michael Mahl as one of many addicted doctors practicing in Arizona without drug tests, all allowed under the state's conventional medical board's rules. The story ("The Doctor Is Out," March 6) examined Arizona's program for addicted physicians, revealing that many doctors relapse after the board stops drug-testing them.

In 2001, Mahl confessed to being a cocaine addict and being "sexually compulsive" while running his Tucson group home for troubled boys. The following year, Mahl moved to Chandler. The Arizona Medical Board reinstated his license and began drug-testing him.

Five years later, Mahl graduated from Arizona's program — never to be drug-tested again. Mahl told New Times early this year that he was confident that he wouldn't relapse.

But by his own admission, Mahl relapsed on July 21, less than one year after the board stopped its drug tests. Mahl turned himself in to the medical board (which may not have otherwise known he relapsed) and asked that his license be put on "inactive" status.

The irony is that Mahl works as an addiction counselor.

In March, New Times found that 45 of 50 physicians in Arizona's Monitored Aftercare Program (MAP) relapsed at some point during their times in the MAP. Three of every four doctors who graduated from MAP later relapsed after the MAP stopped drug-testing them.

Despite those findings, the MAP 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], we will do that," Downey says.

"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 five years. But some national experts suggest lifelong drug tests would protect the careers of physicians, as well as the safety of their patients.

Downey adds that physicians who relapse after the MAP's drug testing ends — like Mahl — usually sign an agreement that their license will be revoked if they relapse a second time.

Mahl — who was eager to talk in March — did not return recent messages left on his cell phone.