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The government vs. your doctor: A true story

By Cristina Rizza
web posted March 29, 2004

Like many doctors in today's medical profession, I am the victim of a violation of individual rights. While I continue to practice medicine, many others do not. Personally, I can testify: the assault on doctors is real, it matters, and it is getting much worse.

I chose to become an American citizen in 1981, though I had been licensed to practice medicine in the U.S. since 1976. My record as a doctor is exemplary. Yet, for over one year, the state treated me -- unjustly and without cause -- as a criminal.

The harassment began last February, when I received a warning from the Medical Board of California: I was under investigation. The letter stated that treatment I had provided at a Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in 1999 was suspect. The document warned that I should schedule what was referred to as an interview.

I contacted the Board's District office, which was unwilling to provide information about the accusation, investigation, process, punishment, or my professional standing. An official explained that I was prohibited from obtaining the office's pertinent records. While I could examine the case file, making copies was forbidden.

Facing an unknown threat, I promptly cancelled patient appointments and visited the office where, under armed watch, I reviewed the colossal volume of records. Finding few clinical notes reflecting my treatment, it was impossible to discern the grounds for an investigation, let alone a coherent accusation. Sorting the mountain of papers only begged the question: why was I under suspicion?

Deprived of freedom of information, I contacted the VA hospital's lawyer. Since I had completed my training at the government-run VA hospital, regulations made records unavailable to me. The lawyer promised I would be notified when the hospital learned about the case. I never heard from them again.

I hired a lawyer, who tried without success to obtain records. Desperate to understand an investigation that could ruin my career, I visited the VA hospital, persuaded an employee to help, and I finally found copies of my notes regarding the patient who was the subject of the government's case.

I had been reduced to pleading; I was forced to act as if I were guilty.

Months later, I was interrogated in the presence of an armed law enforcement officer. During the proceeding, I learned the real nature of the case; my name was marginally associated with the Board's actions and I was not the doctor being investigated. The government still refused to decide my fate at this meeting. I would have to wait five months, when the Medical Board of California finally wrote a letter ominously stating: "no further action was anticipated." Hardly at ease, I was nevertheless relieved and I was tempted to put the ordeal out of my mind.

Then, I remembered why I came to America.

I chose to become an American citizen because this is the only nation based upon individual rights. I chose to become an American because, in America, one is free to choose, practice and earn a livelihood. I chose to be an American because each person is endowed with certain inalienable individual rights -- the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Yet, my rights were fundamentally violated. My life was held in jeopardy each time I faced a gun. My liberty was restricted each time I was refused information, publicly accused of a crime the state refused to name, denied an opportunity to face my accuser in a speedy hearing, and prevented from defending my rights.

For one year -- the longest year of my life -- I wondered whether my livelihood would be eliminated by the state. I faced each patient not knowing whether, let alone why, I would be stripped of the right to practice medicine. I faced arbitrary standards, random rules and the constant threat of force.

I am not alone. There is an equivalent of the California Medical Board -- Medicare, Medicaid, endless bureaucracies -- spread across America and they routinely subject doctors and medical professionals to such persecution.

I love practicing medicine. I also love my freedom, which makes my work possible. I should not be forced to choose between them. During the last year, government control of medicine stripped me of individual rights -- which is why government intrusion in health care is the biggest threat to every American's individual rights.

There is only one solution: speak out against more government intervention in health care and defend the right to your life as if it is an emergency -- because, as I know, it is.

Cristina Rizza, MD, is a practicing cardiologist in southern California. Dr. Rizza serves on the Board of Directors of the non-profit educational organization Americans for Free Choice in Medicine (AFCM), available on the Web at http://www.afcm.org.

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