Politics & Government

Ad Watch: Proposition 46 backers hide the ball in first TV ad

Supporters of a Nov. 4 ballot initiative are airing a television advertisement featuring Tennessee Dr. Stephen Loyd. The measure, Proposition 46, would require random drug and alcohol testing of doctors and increase to about $1.1 million the state’s $250,000 cap on medical malpractice awards.

Loyd, a former addict who went on to become acting chief of medicine at Mountain Home VA Medical Center in Tennessee, has become a fixture of the proponents’ campaign, speaking with opinion-makers on the need for doctor drug testing.

Here’s the text of the ad, followed by analysis from Christopher Cadelago of The Bee Capitol Bureau:

Loyd: “I’m a doctor of internal medicine with something terrible to admit. I’ve treated thousands of patients, risked their lives, while high on prescription drugs. I was an addict. I’m recovered now. But an estimated 500,000 medical professionals are still out there abusing drugs or alcohol. Police, airline pilots, bus drivers, they’re randomly tested for drugs and alcohol, but not us doctors. You can change that. Vote yes on Proposition 46. Your lives are in our hands.”

Analysis: The initiative’s proponents are presenting just one of the measure’s three prongs: random drug and alcohol testing. Omitted from the ad are provisions of the measure that would more than quadruple the limit on medical malpractice damages – its backers’ primary objective – and require doctors to consult a prescription drug database before prescribing certain drugs.

The 500,000 number cited in the ad is a stretch in more ways than one. First, it’s a national, not state, figure that relies on a federal report that found 103,000 health care practitioners abused illicit drugs and that 400,000 reported alcohol dependence or abuse. While the numbers include registered nurses and home-health aides, the random drug and alcohol testing mandated by the initiative requires only hospitals to screen affiliated physicians.

Using text on the screen, the ad also contends that nearly 1 in 5 will have substance abuse problems. A March 2000 newsletter from the California Medical Board stated experts in the substance abuse field who work with health care professionals “estimate the lifetime risk for developing a problem of abuse among health professionals may be as high as 18 percent,” close to the 1 in 5 number cited in the ad. The article went on to say those experts believe the percent with substance-related disorders at any given time is closer to 1 percent to 2 percent.

However, earlier this year, the California Medical Board clarified that it doesn’t have any empirical data on the number of physicians with substance abuse problems. “The board does not now, and has never, collected this type of information,” the letter stated.