April 8, 2010
By Sarah Brown
Pilots who failed to disclose their antidepressant use on past medical applications to the FAA have six months to come forward without fear of prosecution.
The use of antidepressants has long been a disqualifying medical condition for first, second, and third class medicals. The FAA announced a policy change April 2 that will allow special-issuance medical certification for pilots who take four common medications for some depressive disorders. This change could affect thousands of pilots who were previously ineligible for a medical. But how to handle pilots on antidepressants who may now qualify for a medical but who did not report information about their condition on previous medical applications to avoid being denied certification? The FAA chief counsel issued a bulletin that answers that question.
According to the bulletin, the FAA will not initiate legal enforcement action against a pilot regarding past medical applications if the applicant discloses a history of antidepressant use, the underlying condition for which the medication was prescribed, and visits to health professionals in connection with the antidepressant use or underlying condition on an application for medical certification between April 5, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2010.
The policy statement discusses the reasoning behind the period of non-prosecution: “Without condoning what we regard as a serious violation of FAA regulations and a serious breach of the trust on which the aeromedical certification system depends, we want to encourage pilots who are suffering from depression or who are using antidepressants to report this information honestly. … Our intent is to enhance safety by having those individuals suffering from depression or using antidepressants to do so with appropriate aeromedical oversight.” Scenarios involving pilots flying while taking an antidepressant without medical oversight, or flying without taking an antidepressant when they need to be, are unacceptable, it notes.
In order to benefit from the protections of the bulletin, a pilot must surrender to the FAA any currently-held medical certificates and reapply for a new medical certificate between April 5 and Sept. 30, disclosing all of the relevant information about the condition and treatment. If an applicant falsifies any information on the medical certificate application made on or after April 5, the FAA may take enforcement action.
The period of non-prosecution is not strictly “immunity”: only the Department of Justice may offer immunity for making a materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or entry on the medical application. However, the FAA and the Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General have agreed that the FAA will not refer cases of apparent falsification covered by this bulletin to the inspector general for criminal investigation or prosecution.
Pilots who come forward now will not be prosecuted, but this does not guarantee that they will return to the air. The FAA considers special-issuance certificates on a case-by-case basis; the agency may later find that the airman does not meet the qualifications for a special-issuance medical certificate on the basis of the most recent application. Those airmen will receive letters of denial, and will be notified of their rights of appeal of the denial to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The FAA bulletin is specific to the use of four SSRIs; falsifications under any other circumstances will be prosecuted under the usual sanctions of revocation of medical, airman, and/or ground instructor certificates.
A new FAA policy on obstructive sleep apnea that addresses many of the concerns raised by AOPA is scheduled to take effect March 2.
AOPA and the National Business Aviation Association have jointly filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals as part of the ongoing legal battle over the future of Santa Monica Municipal Airport.
AOPA worked with the flight training industry and FAA to quickly resolve a problem that suddenly put many rating applications on hold.
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