Atheist nurse wins fight to end mandatory AA meetings
B.C. health authority settles human rights complaint with Byron Wood, who lost his job after quitting AA.
By Bethany Lindsay
CBC News · Posted: Dec 11, 2019
Health-care professionals who work in Vancouver-area hospitals and medical clinics will no longer be required to attend 12-step programs if they want to keep their jobs after being diagnosed with addiction.
The change comes as a result of a settlement between public health authority Vancouver Coastal Health and former nurse Byron Wood, who filed a human rights complaint alleging he was discriminated against as an atheist when he was fired for quitting Alcoholics Anonymous.
Wood told CBC the agreement was reached after a month of negotiations.
“I’m really happy about the outcome — it means that VCH employees are not required to attend 12-step rehab centres, 12-step meetings, or participate in any 12-step activities if they object for religious reasons,” he said in an email.
“It’s what I’ve been fighting for, for the last six years.”
As part of the settlement, Wood said he has to keep many details of the agreement confidential.
But he did say Vancouver Coastal Health employees who require addiction treatment will now have a way of “meaningfully registering their objection” to 12-step programs.
They won’t have to attend AA and similar programs “if that approach to treatment conflicts with their religious or non-religious beliefs,” Wood said.
Nearly 14,000 people work for the health authority, including 5,500 nurses and 2,700 doctors. Officials at VCH have yet to respond to requests for comment, but a spokesperson confirmed the settlement terms outlined by Wood.
The settlement could have implications in other professions and across the country. Researchers who study addiction treatment for health-care workers say it’s common for employees to be required to participate in 12-step programs in the interest of protecting public safety.
Vancouver lawyer and workplace consultant Jonathan Chapnick said mandatory AA has long been the standard approach for workplace addiction issues in Canada.
“I think it makes sense for employers to look at something like this and do their own research and make their policy better reflect the research evidence that’s out there,” he said of VCH’s change in policy.
“Twelve step does not work for everyone. And, in fact, it doesn’t work for most people.”
Six of AA’s 12 steps directly refer to God or a higher power, including one that requires members turn their will and lives “over to the care of God.”
“The 12 steps are a religious peer support group, not a medical treatment. They shouldn’t be imposed on anyone,” Wood said.
“When you’re a medical doctor, and you specialize in only one condition, and the only treatment that you offer for that condition involves God, you shouldn’t be practising medicine.”
Wood was working as a registered nurse on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside when he was diagnosed with substance use disorder after a psychotic break in the fall of 2013.
His professional college was informed, along with his union and Vancouver Coastal Health, his employer at the time.
He was referred to a doctor specializing in addictions, who created a plan that Wood would need to follow if he wanted to return to work. AA was a mandatory component.
As an atheist, Wood suggested alternatives to the 12-step program, including secular support groups like SMART Recovery and LifeRing Secular Recovery, but his doctor rejected them, according to emails Wood provided to CBC News.
He also asked for a referral to a new doctor, but his union informed him it only uses addiction specialists who follow the 12-step model, the emails show.
The AA meetings didn’t help, Wood said, and he lost his job as well as his registration as a nurse when he stopped going.
Since then, he’s been fighting to get his job back while dealing with his addictions using a drug called naltrexone, which blocks the intoxicating effects of alcohol and opiates. He says he is healthy and no longer meets the criteria for substance use disorder.
While many people say AA has been instrumental in their recovery from addiction, scientists have long questioned the overall effectiveness of the program, and say choice in treatment plans is key to recovery.
Wood’s complaint to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal was bolstered by letters of support from scientists, doctors, psychotherapists, lawyers, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, the B.C. Humanist Association, and the Centre for Inquiry Canada, an Ontario-based humanist charity.
The complaint originally named the B.C. Nurses’ Union as a respondent, but that portion was dismissed by the tribunal earlier this year.
Wood said he plans to apply to the College of Nursing Professionals for reinstatement of his license, with the hope of finding a new job in nursing.