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Doctor with 6 DUIs returns

By Maya Bell and Carol Gentry
6/19/2009 © Health News Florida

A Palm Beach County doctor who racked up six drunken-driving arrests and served two prison terms has persuaded state health authorities that he can stay sober and safely treat patients again. 

Dermatologist Hal Ridgway, 58, received the go-ahead from the Florida Board of Medicine this month, after a University of Florida program that tests troubled doctors said he was ready.

The board’s addiction consultant, psychiatrist Raymond Pomm of Jacksonville, said Ridgway is “clean and sober today” and has been since at least November. “He is safe now,” Pomm said. 

Ridgway’s attorneys say he’s paid his debt to society and deserves another chance. One called him “the poster boy for rehabilitation.” 

“He’s worked really hard to get better,’’ Allen Grossman of Tallahassee added in a phone interview. “I’ve seen an amazing change and I’m really hopeful he’ll make the best of this opportunity.’’ 

If so, it will be a new role. Ridgway spent the past two decades as a walking advertisement for bad choices, second chances, and lost opportunities. He has what the state Department of Health calls an “extensive and well-documented” history of alcohol abuse and bipolar disorder peppered with treatments and relapses. 

Sometimes, others paid the price for his mistakes. In 1990, Ridgway, a graduate of the University of Nebraska’s medical school, pleaded no contest to killing a 26-year-old man while driving drunk in Wisconsin. He served one year of a two-year prison sentence on a charge of “homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle” for the June 1989 accident, according to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. 

After moving to Florida, where he already had a medical license, Ridgway collected at least five arrests, two probation violations and three convictions for driving under the influence of alcohol. The last one, which included a conviction for driving with a revoked license, sent him to state prison on a 25-month sentence. He served 18 months and was released from Tomoka Correctional Institution in Volusia County in December 2007. 

A year after his release, despite a mandatory 10-year loss of his driver’s license, the state Department of Motor Vehicles and Highway Safety issued him a “hardship” license for work purposes. Three months later, he was pulled over once again, this time for speeding. 

Ridgway’s troubles with drinking brought him to the attention of the Department of Health, which licenses health-care professionals and investigates complaints. DOH directed him to be supervised by the Professional Resource Network, or PRN, an independent program that monitors health professionals who have been diagnosed with mental health or substance-abuse problems.

Under the terms of PRN contracts, impaired professionals agree to undergo random drug and alcohol testing and participate in individual and group treatment and professional support groups.

Ridgway signed his first contract with PRN in August 2002, about five months after a DUI arrest in Martin County, which was reduced to reckless driving. His evaluation led to a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, aggravated by alcohol abuse.

PRN discovered that Ridgway had relapsed in November 2003. He entered an inpatient facility, Challenges Treatment Program in Fort Lauderdale, and signed a new contract with PRN on his release in December 2003. Six weeks later, records show, he relapsed and was arrested for another DUI. He re-entered Challenges, this time for several months. 

The day after Ridgway entered treatment, inspectors from Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration made an unannounced visit to his West Palm Beach practice, Forest Hill Dermatology Associates, where they found hundreds of tissue samples. They charged Ridgway with conducting laboratory-style analysis of the samples without having a proper license, an offense later settled with a letter of concern and $5,000 fine. 

By November 2004, Ridgway was deemed to be in full remission and pronounced “fit for duty,” records show. He resumed his practice in January 2005, but the same month tested positive for the painkiller Tramadol, a synthetic opioid that he was not authorized to take. 

That prompted PRN to request his withdrawal from practice again, and he reported to Shands Vista program in Gainesville, records show. He was evaluated and determined to be unable to practice medicine safely. 

In March 2005, Ridgway’s psychiatrist, Diana Fisher, reported that he had missed three appointments and would not return phone messages. PRN terminated his contract, but renewed it in October 2005 when Ridgway voluntarily withdrew from practice. Two months later, he was arrested for driving while intoxicated again – his sixth such arrest, according to DOH records – and driving with a revoked license. 

This time, he was sent to state prison. While he was there, in February 2007, the Board of Medicine suspended his license indefinitely and imposed a $10,000 fine. 

Ridgway was also a defendant in two medical malpractice actions filed in 1999 that alleged he misdiagnosed serious illnesses. Both resulted in insurance settlements at or near the $250,000-per-case limit of his coverage, according to closed-claim files at the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation. Neither of the attorneys who brought them remembered alcohol abuse being an issue. 

Ridgway said very little when he appeared before the Board of Medicine on June 5 in Fort Lauderdale. Grossman, a seasoned administrative law attorney in Tallahassee, presented a statement from a UF-based evaluation program for doctors, saying Ridgway had passed all the tests and was capable of re-entering practice. In
December, the board had agreed to reinstate Ridgway’s license on probation, under indirect supervision by another dermatologist, if he passed that evaluation. 

Board member Jason Rosenberg said he still had “serious concerns about someone with six DUIs practicing medicine.” But Pomm assured the board that Ridgway has abided by his latest contract, signed in November. 

Ridgway declined a request for an interview, but Michael Salnick, who handled most of Ridgway’s DUIs, said he’s certain his longtime client will not squander his new chance. 

“He is a fine doctor and he has paid his debt to society,” the West Palm Beach attorney said. “It’s time society understands that.’’ 

--Questions or comments? Contact Carol Gentry at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.