LOUISVILLE — Stephen J. Arnett, currently under investigation for promoting online and foreign medical schools from Magoffin County, was recently given a license to practice as a surgical assistant in Kentucky.
The license allows him, while being supervised, to assist surgeons with opening and closing incisions and other procedures during surgery. It is not clear whether Arnett is actually working in that capacity. He indicated to the Board of Medical Licensure that he intended to start a surgical assistants company. Arnett was a key figure in Degrees of Harm, a Herald-Leader series in October, that examined his role in recruiting students to treat patients, study in clinical settings or receive online medical degrees. Three men Arnett was involved with have been convicted of practicing medicine without a license -- one in Kentucky, one in Nevada and one in Rhode Island.
In the past, Arnett has described himself as having medical degrees and other medical credentials that he did not have. He has been investigated by state and federal authorities, but has never been charged with any crime as a result of his medical activities. He is not licensed as a medical doctor in Kentucky or any other state.
Kentucky's Board of Medical Licensure denied Arnett a physician's assistant's license in 1988 and warned him not to "hold himself out" as one. The board investigated him in 1997 after a complaint that he was again working as a physician's assistant, but when the board shared the results with law enforcement officials, nothing was done.
C. Loyd Vest, an attorney for the medical board, said that Arnett was granted a surgical assistant's license in March.
The board initially approved Arnett's application on its face, Vest said. However, when questioned by a reporter about it recently, he said: "We are now reviewing the information that he provided to get a surgical assistant's license."
In Kentucky, payments for the work of a certified surgical assistant have recently become reimbursable through third-party insurance.
Arnett has not responded to several requests by the Herald-Leader for an interview. But in a court deposition from a lawsuit against him that was later dismissed, he said he was always honest about his degrees and that they were all legitimate.
After the publication of the Herald-Leader series, Kentucky's medical licensure board began investigating how Arnett helped other people get medical degrees.
Why, Vest was asked, was Arnett, who had previously been turned down for a physician's assistant's license, granted a surgical assistant's license?
The requirements for the two licenses are different, Vest said. More is required of a physician's assistant, who acts as an agent of the supervising physician and is allowed to treat patients and prescribe medication.
Under Kentucky law, a surgical assistant's license can be obtained if a person is certified by one of several national surgical assistant's groups and completes 800 hours in the three previous years as an assistant in surgical procedures under the direct supervision of a physician licensed in this country.
Arnett presented documents to the board in January showing he had passed a test given by a national group approved by the board -- the North Carolina-based national Surgical Assistant Association.
Officials from that organization did not return telephone calls or respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
Arnett also told the board in his application that he had trained as a surgical assistant at two Florida clinics for 850 hours between 2002 and 2005.
One of the clinics was the Hallandale Orthopedic and Outpatient Surgical Center in Hallandale, Fla. That facility's current Web site lists it as Orthopedic Rehab of Hallandale Inc. It does not mention surgical procedures, but advertises chiropractic and alternative and natural medicine services.
A licensed chiropractor on staff at the clinic advertises having a naturopathic degree from St. Luke School of Medicine and Southern Graduate Institute, schools where Arnett once held key titles. Naturopathy involves using only natural elements or the body's own immune system to treat disease.
The Hallandale clinic's Web site also says that the osteopath is a faculty member at a university in the Caribbean that Arnett once promoted.
At a second clinic in St. Petersburg, Fla., clinic director Joseph DiStefano said that Arnett observed several hours of surgery and other medical procedures performed by a licensed physician until the clinic stopped performing surgeries more than a year ago, when a staff member retired.
Arnett's application to the board said he was employed by Kentucky Surgical Arts #2 Ortho-Rehab on James Trimble Boulevard in Paintsville.
Arnett now maintains an office at 624 James S. Trimble Drive inside the Paintsville Ramada Inn, called Health and Sports Wellness Center. A seal on the door says the center is a member of the American Medical Massage Therapy Association. Services listed include massage therapy, neuromuscular therapy, cellulite treatment, naturopathic/homeopathic remedies and reflexology, as well as homeopathic and natural health products and nutritional consultation -- but not outpatient surgery.
Arnett is a licensed massage therapist in West Virginia and Kentucky. He has been licensed as a naturopath in Idaho and Washington, D.C., and as an acupuncturist in West Virginia.
He has also incorporated the Kentucky Association of Surgical Assistant Inc., according to records filed with the Kentucky secretary of state.
A company at the same address is listed in the Secretary of State's records as ISO-Diagnostics Testing of Kentucky, with Steve Arnette -- the last name spelled with an extra e -- as the organizer and director.
In addition to looking into Arnett's credentials, Vest said the Kentucky board is also investigating the activities of the businesses which carry Arnett's name in state records.