Physician's Report Alcohol Problems – Patients Lose

Physicians Have License to Influence Driving Privileges

Doctors must report any condition that may impair motorists.

According to Commonwealth Court records, Emerich, then 44, was
admitted to Good Samaritan Hospital in Lebanon in February 2004 with
heart palpitations. While taking his medical history, a doctor asked how
much he drank, and Emerich said probably six to eight glasses of beer a

A physician told Emerich that drinking could be bad for his heart, but
nobody said anything at that point about his driver’s license. After a
short hospital stay, he resumed his normal life as a print-shop worker,
taking medication for a heart ailment.

About six weeks later, Emerich was surprised to be notified by mail
that the state Department of Transportation was suspending his license,
based on a doctor’s judgment that he had an alcohol problem.

Emerich’s lawyer, Horace Ehrgood of Lebanon, said his client appealed
to Lebanon County Court, which upheld the suspension in August 2004, then
to Commonwealth Court, which two months ago sustained the county

The court said that under the law, PennDOT has the right to pull one’s
license if, ”in the opinion of an examining physician,” a medical
condition is likely to impair your ability to drive safely. The law lists
the use of any drug or substance, including alcohol, as among those

So based on a doc’s opinion ‹ informed opinion,
perhaps, but opinion nonetheless ‹ they can take your
wheels away, and put the onus back on you to show you’re capable of
driving once again, Doug.

Emerich has to convince a physician his drinking will no longer impair
his ability to drive (if it ever did), and that’s what he intends to do,
said Ehrgood, adding that his client doesn’t have the money to continue
with court appeals.

The Warrior couldn’t reach Emerich, but Ehrgood said he’s doing well
with the heart problems under control, and he’s getting to work every day
with the help of a co-worker. Ehrgood is unaware of any drinking
problems. ”He hasn’t missed any work,” he said.

Again, the Warrior understands the need to prevent drunken driving.
But in this instance, Emerich, who had a DUI 24 years ago but had a clean
driving record since, was charged with no such thing. No traffic stop, no
blood test, no anything.

”The only crime I committed was getting sick and telling the doctor
the truth,” Emerich told the Associated Press last year.

Emerich did make one mistake, in the Warrior’s view. He declined a
doctor’s request to go to alcohol counseling or therapy. Ehrgood said
Emerich had undergone counseling decades ago for the DUI charge, and felt
it wasn’t necessary now, since he had done nothing wrong.

But he should have taken the opportunity; a counselor’s word that
Emerich had cut back on the juice probably would have carried some
weight, and he might have his license back by now.

”No doubt about it,” Ehrgood agreed.

Nevertheless, the way this thing came down brings George Orwell to
mind. And the potential for patients to withhold vital information from
their doctors for fear of being ratted out is a fearful prospect.

PennDOT spokeswoman Claudine Battisti said the department is aware of
the civil-rights concerns regarding this issue, and tries to balance them
with the safety rights of the general motoring public. ”There are
concerns on both sides,” she said, adding that it’s the Legislature
really setting the rules.

As for what to tell the doctor, ”Hopefully, people will be truthful
with their doctor,” Battisti said, because their health is at stake.

Chuck Moran of the Pennsylvania Medical Society said the law doesn’t
merely recommend that physicians report problems, they’re mandated to do
it. If they don’t, not only could they be cited, but they could be sued
if a patient later was in an accident.

PennDOT processes 40,000 physician-reporting forms each year, Battisti
said. Last year, 5,774 licenses were suspended for medical reasons, 29
percent for seizure disorder, 18 percent for psychiatric problems, 12
percent for bad vision, 11 percent each for cardiovascular and
neurological problems, 10 percent for loss of consciousness, 5 percent
for substance abuse, and 2 percent each for loss or impairment of limbs
and diabetes, Battisti said.

In all, 289 people, including Emerich, had their licenses suspended
for substance abuse.

Many editorial boards and opinion writers have addressed the issues
surrounding Emerich’s case. According to the Warrior’s review, most
concluded that ”Six-Pack Keith” got a raw deal, despite the state’s
need to protect the safety of all motorists.

”Emerich’s driving rights are being restricted for an offense he did
not commit,” said the Lancaster New Era. ”In this country, people are
innocent until proven guilty. In Emerich’s case, he’s guilty until proven

The state sets no limit, Doug, on the amount of alcohol you can drink
per night.

Not yet, anyway.

See Article: Morning Call

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