My local "alternative" paper ran an article
this week about the differences between the way nurses accused of drug diversion are treated an the way doctors accused of drug diversion are treated.
Last January, the Vermont Board of Medical Practice disciplined Dr. Anne Johnston for illegally prescribing painkillers to feed her own drug habit. According to court records, the Fletcher Allen Health Care physician admitted that between April 2009 and March 2010 she wrote-and filled-prescriptions for nonexistent patients.
But Attorney General Bill Sorrell didn't bring charges against her. In a press release, he said he made his "close-call decision" in part because Johnston had already referred herself to a substance-abuse treatment program specifically designed for medical professionals. Sorrell also factored in her "specialized skill as a neonatologist-she is one of only five in the state-and her important contribution to the work at the neonatal unit at Fletcher Allen."
Another mitigating factor, Sorrell added, was a meeting he had with Fletcher Allen staff, "each of whom stressed their strong support for Dr. Johnston." Ultimately, she was allowed to continue practicing medicine under a "conditioned" license, which prohibits her from prescribing controlled substances.
This wasn't Johnston's first offense. In 1998, she was similarly disciplined for illegally obtaining narcotics for personal use. That time, Johnston also avoided criminal prosecution.
Johnston's story is striking, not just for its sad irony-her medical expertise is in treating opiate-dependent babies born to addicted mothers -but also because it differs markedly from other drug-diversion cases handled by the attorney general's office in recent years, particularly those involving nurses. Since late 2006, the AG's office has made a point of issuing press releases whenever it convicts a nurse of diverting or abusing prescription opiates. None received the same leniency as Johnston.