DEA investigations: How much is too much?

Why such lengthy criminal investigations?

In an earlier post I asked whether the number of deaths attributed to Dr. Sylvia Hofstetter’s clinic by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) could have been reduced had the undercover investigation been terminated sooner, after two years instead of four. In other words, what did two more years of undercover work by the DEA add to Dr. Hofstetter’s case?

More likely than not, the additional two years added nothing of value. By the DEA’s own account, illicit drug use and deaths continued, unabated by the DEA, while the DEA continued its lengthy investigation, and for what purpose? The additional evidence accumulated against Dr. Hofstetter was of questionable value. If the allegations are true, Dr. Hofstetter’s case would have been overwhelming to defend after the first year. As I write this, I can think of two physicians convicted of only one count of drug diversion that were sentenced to 5 years each, and one physician convicted of only six counts of drug diversion that was sentenced to 15 years. And all it takes is one patient death to impose a mandatory 20-year sentence. So why spend four years investigating Dr. Hofstetter, when one year, or even six months, will suffice?

Some might argue that the DEA is preoccupied with large undercover investigations at the expense of preventing harm to others. Think about it. If there were an active shooter in a shopping mall, police would not secretly stand by, accumulating more evidence, allowing more deaths to occur, before intervening to save lives. If the DEA is right about the harm inflicted by drug diversion, and by Dr. Hofstetter, why then does the DEA stand by and allow the harm to continue? What interests are served?

Why wait for a crime or injury to occur in the first place?

And here’s the larger question – why not shut down questionable prescribing practices early-on, when the suspect prescribing practices are first brought to the DEA’s attention, before anyone is harmed? There is, after all, no need to wait for even one criminal act to occur. Criminality is not necessary before the DEA may take action. The DEA may restrict, suspend, or revoke the prescribing physician’s DEA Registration by exercising the DEA’s administrative powers over DEA Registrants, much like a state licensing Board will pursue a physician, pharmacist, or nurse for practicing below the standard of care under state law.

It doesn’t take much to stop illegal prescribing

As I write this, I can think of a doctor and a nurse that engaged is almost identical misconduct while prescribing controlled drugs. Each wrote prescriptions to another, knowing the other would fill the prescriptions and return the controlled drugs to the doctor or nurse, for the doctor or nurse’s personal use. In each case, the standard of care was violated, and a fraudulent medical record was created, a crime. If insurance paid for the controlled drugs, then insurance fraud occurred too, also a crime.

Both the doctor and the nurse were easily caught, and easily stopped. Both were reported by their co-workers. The doctor was reported to the Oregon Medical Board (OMB). He’s in treatment, on probation, and his license is restricted, but he’s still practicing medicine. The nurse, unfortunately, was reported to the police first, and then to the Oregon State Board of Nursing. She too obtained treatment, but the police report led to a criminal indictment and she eventually entered a plea agreement on two counts. The sentencing court, wishing to send a message, insisted on criminal convictions over misdemeanors. Because the nurse was convicted of two felonies, she surrendered her RN and NP licenses to the Oregon State Board of Nursing. And because the nurse was convicted of two drug felonies, she was further “excluded” by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) from participation in any and all healthcare programs receiving federal dollars for five years!

As an aside, the doctor and the nurse were involved in similar misconduct, but were treated in a disparate fashion, because law enforcement became involved in the nurse’s case, but not the doctor’s case. The doctor is still practicing, albeit with a restricted license while on probation and receiving treatment. The nurse, however, is not practicing, because she had the misfortune of being reported to the police first, and then the Oregon State Board of Nursing. She lost her licensure and was excluded by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) from working in any setting that received federal funding, which is most clinical settings. Such disparate treatment is worrisome, but the point I want to make is that in both cases, the prescribing misconduct was stopped early on, before it became a larger societal problem.

Early intervention may be best for all involved

Which brings me back to where I started. Imagine how much pain and suffering, not to mention loss of life, might have been spared had the DEA exercised is administrative powers, and stepped in four years earlier, at the first sign of trouble, to restrict, suspend, or revoke Dr. Sylvia Hofstetter’s DEA Registration, and then perhaps pursue criminal sanctions too.