Medical Board discourages volunteer doctors

I read with interest the Aug. 17 article titled "Program brings doctors out of retirement" about a handful of physicians who went through a special "retraining" program at OHSU in order to get their Oregon medical licenses in order to return to practice. Unlike the vast majority of medical boards across the country, the Oregon Medical Board requires a complex "retraining" program for physicians who have been out of clinically active practice for two years or more. I could not disagree more with this policy, especially in view of our severe health-care crisis and the growing physician shortage.

I am a Board Certified physician with 32 years of clinically active experience and a current active medical license in California. Volunteering in my community has always been important to me and so when I recently retired to Oregon, I submitted my application for licensure here with the intention of volunteering as a consultant at a local clinic serving indigent patients. Even though I have not been clinically active for more than two years (which in no way prevents licensure in California or the vast majority of other states), there is no doubt that my 32 years of experience in my field makes me far more able to treat patients in my specialty than general doctors, physicians assistants and nurse practitioners who now face the burden of providing specialty care due to the lack of available specialists.

When I was told by the Oregon Medical Board that I would be considered for licensure only by submitting to a tedious, ill-defined and extremely expensive "retraining" program, I naturally became discouraged from volunteering, like countless numbers of prospective volunteer physicians before me. On doing some research, I found out that Oregon ranks 47th out of 50 states in access to medical emergency care and desperately needs volunteer physicians. I found out that the Oregon Medical Board practices favoritism because physicians who are board members are allowed to retain their full medical licenses even if they have not been clinically active for more than two years.

I tried to persuade the Oregon Medical Board that it was wrong to turn away fully competent and experienced physicians who hold licenses in other states and who have met all of Oregon's legislative requirements for medical licensure (note: the "re-entry" requirement is completely an invention of the OMB and is not part of state law that governs licensure). I also argued that the OMB does not apply its licensing requirements uniformly to all physicians, as it automatically renews licenses of in-state physicians regardless of their level of clinical activity but applies different standards to out-of-state doctors who move to Oregon and seek licensure. Even though the OMB repeatedly suggested that I withdraw my application, I persistently spoke out on behalf of the cause of medical volunteerism by writing to the Board and by appearing in person before a special Board committee.

To my utter disbelief, the Oregon Medical Board denied me licensure on the grounds that it considered me to be in violation of Oregon law, accusing me of "dishonorable and unprofessional conduct." All I had done was to submit an application for a medical license and speak out on behalf of volunteerism. I had never seen a single patient in Oregon. I found myself facing a mandatory court appearance, thousands of dollars in fines and court costs, and blacklisting in the National Physicians Data Bank. When I read the state's "legal case file" against me, I uncovered evidence of the Board's gross errors, incompetence, and abuse of power in handling my application. What had started out with the best of intentions — the wish to volunteer as a physician in Oregon — wound up nightmarishly. I had to hire legal counsel to defend myself against the Oregon Medical Board and the state of Oregon. Shocked by what had occurred, I ultimately withdrew my application for a license. Patients in Oregon lost the services of yet another physician volunteer.

The consequences of driving away highly experienced and competent volunteer physicians (and punishing them in the process) cannot be ignored at a time of national health- care crisis and a serious shortage of physicians. Oregon is already an underserved area. Although claiming to safeguard "public safety," the true effect of the OMB's policies has been to severely restrict access to medical care to countless patients in need.

The OMB is not improving the quality of health care in Oregon; it is limiting the availability to health care by restricting the number of qualified physicians.

Perhaps the governor should turn his attention to how the Oregon Medical Board's policies have contributed to Oregon's rank of 47th out of 50 in access to emergency health care. Above all, the OMB should be made to account for accusing a physician of "dishonorable and unprofessional conduct" for simply trying to volunteer.

Ira H. Buchalter, M.D., lives in Jacksonville.

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