AND NOW, this 14th day of January, 2009, it is ORDERED that the above-captioned opinion filed October 23, 2008 shall be designated OPINION rather than MEMORANDUM OPINION, and it shall be reported.
Argued: September 8, 2008
BEFORE: HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge, HONORABLE JOHNNY J. BUTLER, Judge, HONORABLE JIM FLAHERTY, Senior Judge.
Anthony F. Moscato, M.D. (Dr. Moscato) petitions for review of the November 30, 2007 Final Adjudication and Order of the Department of State, State Board of Medicine (Board) which adopted the decision of the hearing examiner, suspending Dr. Moscato's medical license for two years and requiring him to take a continuing education course on sexual boundary issues.
Dr. Moscato had been licensed to practice medicine for thirty-six years, and had a special interest in chronic pain management, although he was not board certified in any particular field. He met TB*fn1 on September 30, 2003. Soon after their first date, Dr. Moscato and TB began a romantic and physical relationship, ultimately resulting in their engagement. TB and Dr. Moscato moved in together, and TB eventually started working for Dr. Moscato. When the two met, Dr. Moscato was in the process of divorcing his wife.
As a result of their personal relationship, Dr. Moscato became aware that TB had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and other mental and physical problems. In particular, TB had chronic pain caused by dental caries and gingivitis. By December 2003, TB had been seen by approximately eleven licensed medical professionals,*fn2 all of whom eventually refused to continue prescribing her opioids because of the addictive effects of the drugs. At this point, Dr. Moscato discussed with TB the possibility of treating her himself because TB had, in his opinion, failed to secure proper treatment for her various conditions and seemed unable to obtain treatment that would alleviate her chronic pain. Dr. Moscato reviewed what he considered the applicable Board regulations and concluded, without consulting legal counsel or the Board, that the regulations permitted him to treat TB because he started his personal relationship with TB prior to starting their physician/patient relationship. The physician/patient relationship officially started on December 12, 2003, at which point he prescribed opioids that he believed TB needed to relieve her chronic pain.
In addition to the treatment TB was receiving from Dr. Moscato for her chronic pain, she started seeing Mary Cohen, M.D. (Dr. Cohen), a physician board-certified in psychiatry and internal medicine, in June 2004 for her bipolar disorder. During Dr. Cohen's treatment of TB, Dr. Moscato communicated with Dr. Cohen on numerous occasions. Dr. Moscato fully disclosed to Dr. Cohen his relationship with TB and the reasons for taking on her care. In turn, Dr. Cohen expressed her concerns with Dr. Moscato treating TB because of the nature of their personal relationship. During Dr. Cohen's treatment of TB, there was an incident in which Dr. Moscato increased TB's dosage of Xanax (an antidepressant prescribed by Dr. Cohen) after Dr. Cohen had refused to do so until she met with TB. This incident, along with Dr. Cohen's belief that Dr. Moscato should have shared information on the medications he was prescribing for TB for consideration of potentially harmful drug interactions with the medications she was prescribing, led Dr. Cohen to believe that Dr. Moscato was interfering with her treatment of TB. As a result, Dr. Cohen submitted a complaint to the Board out of concern for TB's well-being.
In August 2005, a Professional Conduct Investigator, Thomas Olek (Olek), met with Dr. Moscato regarding the allegations of an inappropriate relationship. Dr. Moscato fully revealed his relationship with TB and the circumstances that led to his treatment of her. Dr. Moscato continued treating TB until he received an Order to Show Cause from the Board. In October 2007, a hearing officer concluded that Dr. Moscato's treatment of TB was in violation of Section 41 of the Medical Practice Act of 1985 (Medical Practice Act), Act of December 20, 1985, P.L. 457, as amended, 63 P.S. § 422.41 and Section 16.110 of the Board's Regulations, 49 Pa. Code § 16.110, suspended his license for two years and required Dr. Moscato to take a continuing education course on sexual boundaries. Dr. Moscato appealed the hearing officer's decision to the Board, which ultimately affirmed the hearing officer's findings. Dr. Moscato then appealed the Board's order to this Court.*fn3
Dr. Moscato first argues that Section 16.110(b) of the Board's Regulations, 49 Pa. Code § 16.110(b), which prohibits sexual behavior with a current patient other than his/her spouse, and Section 16.110(c) of the Board's Regulations, 49 Pa. Code § 16.110(c), which prohibits sexual behavior with a patient other than the physician's spouse, being treated for a mental health disorder are unconstitutional under the Equal Protection Clause of the United States*fn4 and Pennsylvania*fn5 Constitutions. He contends that there is no rational basis for distinguishing between the treatment of married and unmarried people. He maintains that he is in a committed relationship with TB and that, if the two had been married when he took over her treatment, he would not be in violation of 49 Pa. Code § 16.110.
A legislative classification implicating neither suspect classes nor fundamental rights will be sustained in a challenge under the equal protection clause if the classification has a rational basis. Jae v. Good, 946 A.2d 802 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2008). The rational basis test requires a two-step analysis: first, to determine whether the challenged statutes seek to promote any legitimate state interest or public value; and, if so, then to determine whether the legislative classification is reasonably related to accomplishing that articulated state interest. Id. In a rational basis analysis, it does not matter that the government has not expressed the purpose supporting its action; it is enough that some rationale may conceivably have been the purpose behind the government's decision-making. Commonwealth v. Albert, 563 Pa. 133, 758 A.2d 1149 (2000). "Moreover, courts are free to hypothesize reasons why the legislature created the particular classification at issue and if some reason for it exists, it cannot be struck down, even if the soundness or wisdom in creating the distinction is questioned." Id.
The Board has articulated its interest in developing the sexual misconduct regulations: "to better protect patients by providing guidance to the profession and the public as to prohibited conduct relating to sexual contact between practitioners and patients." 34 Pa. B. 40 (2004). It may be true that, as Dr. Moscato argues, "treating a spouse could be just as rife with the opportunities to 'exploit vulnerabilities,' 'obscure objective judgment' and 'ultimately be detrimental' to the patient's well-being" (Petitioner's Brief at 15); but that does not make the decision to exclude everyone except spouses from this regulation irrational. The Board even expresses its reason for excluding "significant others" from the regulation which was suggested by the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC): "'significant others' are not a legally recognized, defined group of people and that inclusion would create undue vagueness to the final-form rulemaking." 34 Pa. B. 40, 41 (2004). In addition, there are several laws that recognize "the importance of marriage and has extended benefits and protections to those engaged in a marital relationship that are not available to ...