February 23, 2023

Wyden, Booker and Merkley Urge DOJ to Protect Physician Health Privacy and Hold State Medical Boards Accountable for Violations of the American Disabilities Act

An estimated two-thirds of state medical boards violate Title II of the ADA with personal, taxing, and unnecessarily broad questions about doctors’ psychiatric history

Washington, D.C. – U.S. Senators Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., today urged the Department of Justice (DOJ) to extend its investigations of offenses under the American Disabilities Act (ADA) to include the practices of state medical license boards, which often ask inappropriate medical licensing and application questions regarding mental health. In their letter, the senators cite serious concerns that not only do such questions violate the ADA, they may prevent physicians from seeking the mental health treatment they need.

“Many of these boards ask physicians about their mental health and substance use or addiction history, beyond what is necessary to fulfill the purpose of screening physicians for current, debilitating cases of mental illness and substance use or abuse. These questions both discourage many applicants and licensed physicians from receiving care that they need, and they violate Title II of the ADA, which forbids public entities from discriminating against qualified individuals on the basis of disabilities, including mental health conditions,” Wyden, Booker and Merkley wrote to Attorney General Merrick Garland, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clark, and DOJ Disability Rights Section Chief Rebecca Bond. 

States oversee the qualifications of their physicians as part of the power to protect the health, safety, and welfare of their citizenry, but some of the questions that many state medical boards ask of physicians on their initial licensure exams and renewals are, according to the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the Federation of State Medical Boards, irrelevant to assessing current ability to practice. Several peer-reviewed journal articles estimate that two-thirds of state medical boards violate Title II of the ADA with personal, taxing, and unnecessarily broad questions about doctors’ psychiatric history. 

“These kinds of questions go far beyond conditions that could impair qualified individuals and may require comprehensive disclosure of one’s medical and professional history. Even though physicians face an inordinate amount of stress—their burnout rate is 50%, twice the general working population’s level —many avoid seeking mental health support due in part to these questions,” the senators continued in their letter. 

Physicians have had one of the highest suicide rates of any profession, and the pandemic has exacerbated suicide risk factors. There have also been reports of unwanted mental health support or assessments as physicians have reported retaliatory inquiries into physical, mental, or emotional health and referrals to impaired practitioner programs.

The text of the letter is here.


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