BY HAL BERNTON
The Seattle Times
Maj. Eric Smith will retire from the U.S. Army Medical Command early next year with a pension and other benefits due from 20 years of honorable service that included front-line duty in Iraq.
But before he leaves the military, Smith wants something else: the right to again practice Army medicine.
Smith lost his privileges at Madigan Army Medical Center in 2011, when a urine test came back positive for cocaine. The test results were disputed, and the conviction that sent him to prison for seven months was set aside.
“I was innocent, and I am still being punished because I can’t return to my profession,” said Smith.
If he doesn’t regain his privileges to practice Army medicine, Smith, 46, fears it will be hard to find work as a doctor when he transitions to civilian life.
The Army has filed a report about the action with the National Practitioner Data Bank, a clearinghouse that can be accessed by employers. That report still cites the positive cocaine test, according to documents reviewed by The Seattle Times.
So, while Smith still holds licenses to practice medicine in Washington and Arizona, potential employers considering Smith will be able to view that report.
In a statement to The Seattle Times, a Madigan spokesmen wrote that all decisions to take away hospital privileges receive legal review, and are designed to ensure that patients receive safe, quality care and providers receive due process.
When Smith was released from prison in 2013, he stepped up a quest — chronicled in storiesjointly reported by The Seattle Times and The News Tribune — to disprove the findings that destroyed his career.
He has racked up some important victories.
In July 2015, the Army Court of Appeals set aside his conviction because his defense attorney at his court-martial failed to introduce significant evidence — a follow-up test of a hair follicle. This lab test was done within the time frame that any cocaine markers should have still been in his system, but came up negative.
In March, Smith took another step toward vindication when an Army Board of Inquiry, consisting of three senior officers, convened for two days to decide whether to dismiss him from the Army prematurely, possibly with an other-than-honorable discharge.
The panel ruled that Smith should be allowed to stay in the service until retirement.
That decision came after the board reviewed evidence indicating the urinalysis used to convict Smith had been contaminated by DNA of an unknown second individual. That evidence was gained through a second analysis of the same urine sample — conducted at Smith’s request and expense — by a private laboratory.
How that contamination occurred has not been determined, and the Army has rejected Smith’s requests to investigate the handling of the urine specimen. But at the board hearing, a chemist testified the initial results should have been thrown out, according to a transcript of his remarks included in the board report reviewed by The Seattle Times.
“You don’t know where the cocaine is coming from. You have a sample that’s compromised,” testified Delmar Price, whose past work included forensic DNA analysis for Defense Department laboratories.
At the time of the drug test, Smith already had reported that he struggled with alcoholism and completed a treatment program.
The Army — in refusing to reinstate his privileges — alleged he failed to respond to that treatment, but the board found that a preponderance of evidence did not support that charge because Smith “had complied with all rehabilitation efforts.”
Smith hoped the board findings would persuade Madigan officials to review what had evolved from a suspension to a permanent revocation of his privileges to practice medicine at Army facilities.
But Army officials have declined to reconsider the case.
In the statement released by Madigan, the spokesman wrote that the board inquiry is “entirely unrelated” to the “quality assurance” action taken against Smith.
Smith continues to spend his days on administrative duty, shifting from office to office and forbidden to see patients.
Smith notes that none of the complaints cited to suspend his privileges involved his treatment of patients.
And he is still pushing the Army to let him practice medicine.
In August, he filed a complaint with the Inspector General’s Office about his case, which has since been referred for a Defense Department investigation
“Helping others is kind of my reason for being,” Smith said. “We all have a niche. This is my niche.”
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