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From the despair of addiction to the medical field's leadership

February 9, 2009
by David Raths
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Donald Kurth, MD, brings a unique perspective to his new role as president-elect of the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM): One probably doesn’t envision an ex-heroin addict ultimately advancing to the highest leadership position in the association of addiction medicine specialists.

As detailed in a March/April 2007 Addiction Professional profile, Kurth’s commitment to addiction medicine grew out of his own experience of kicking heroin nearly 40 years ago, as well as a personal battle with alcoholism. He intends to use his new high-profile position to continue his advocacy for changes in health policy.

“My focus is on ending the stigma of addiction for people in recovery and changing public policy so that welcoming treatment is available for everyone who needs it,” says Kurth, 59. “We don’t have that now.”

Kurth seems to collect job titles the way some people collect trinkets. He’s an associate professor in the departments of preventive medicine and psychiatry at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, mayor of the affluent community of Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. (elected in 2006), and owner of the Alta Loma Medical Group urgent care center in Rancho Cucamonga. The achievements haven’t always come easy: His first run for elective office featured a campaign against him that tried to dredge up details of his using past.

As he now adds the title of ASAM president-elect, Kurth says he sees some positive signs for treatment and recovery coming from Washington, D.C. Although President Obama hasn’t been very specific about what his administration’s approach to addiction will be, he has spoken about the need for access to treatment. Kurth notes that during the campaign Obama stressed that every American should be able to get the same type of insurance members of Congress receive. “Well, they get full access to addiction treatment in their coverage,” Kurth says.

In fact, Kurth appends a July 2008 quote from Obama to his e-mails: “Anybody who sees the devastating impact of the drug trade in the inner cities, or the methamphetamine trade in rural communities, knows that this is a huge problem. I believe in shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we focus more on a public-health approach.”

Kurth believes it is up to people who work in the recovery community to get involved in the details of health reform efforts. While he calls last year’s federal passage of a comprehensive behavioral health parity law a great milestone, he adds that “we have to make sure the administrative laws that implement that parity translate into beneficial results in treating addiction.”

While stressing the importance of public policy work, Kurth says he also will help ASAM focus on credentialing issues as ASAM’s American Board of Addiction Medicine certification arm applies to the American Board of Medical Specialties for official recognition.

“Because we haven’t had board certification in the past, the field hasn’t attracted as many physicians as it should,” he notes, adding that the stigma attached to addicts sometimes carries over to the professionals treating them. “The board certification will give more recognition to the physicians in this field among government payers and insurers, as well as the general public.”

David Raths is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.

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