Defending physicians prescribing narcotics for chronic pain has never been easy and I have long criticized the the Drug enforcement Administration (DEA) for conflating the civil standard of care with the criminal conviction standard, thereby criminalizing the practice of medicine. Sixteen months ago I commented that the DEA unnecessarily extends its investigations to the detriment of physicians and patients (DEA investigations: How much is too much?), and 11 months ago I commented that a new standard of care has emerged for the treatment of chronic pain (The pendulum has swung: Treat chronic pain cautiously). Now Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who heads the DEA, has ordered his federal prosecutors to seek the maximum punishment for federal drug offenses. All tolled, a perfect storm is brewing for physicians prescribing narcotics to treat chronic pain.
Treating chronic pain > 90 days and 120 MED (morphine equivalent dose)
With a few exceptions (e.g., cancer pain or hospice care), if you treat chronic pain with narcotics in excess of 90 days and 120 MED (morphine equivalent dose) and your prescribing practices have not evolved over the past five to seven years consistent with the emerging standard of care, you have likely failed to “keep up” and you may be at risk of regulatory intervention. If you treat chronic pain with narcotics in excess of 90 days and 120 MED, and you are not a pain specialist, or you do not refer your patients to a pain specialist, and your patients are not on taper plans, your medical practice may be a ticking time bomb
Prescribing guidelines: The emerging standard of care
The following practice guidelines, offered by the Oregon Medical Board and Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), reflect current standard of care expectations when prescribing narcotics to treat chronic pain:
If your practice is not in line with these recent guidelines, you may be risking sanctions by your state medical board or the DEA. If your practice comes to the attention of your state medical board, your medical license may be subject to quick restriction or threatened revocation. Similarly, if your practice comes to the attention of the DEA, your DEA Registration may be subject to restriction or revocation and, in a worst case scenario, you may be subject to a criminal investigation. This already serious problem has been exacerbated by a newly invigorated DEA that has been instructed United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions to pursue the maximum punishment available for federal drug law violations.
Is there a new leniency in federal sentencing for prescription drug crimes?
In an effort to follow Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) prosecutions, convictions, and sentencings around the country, I read Google alerts weekly, sometimes daily. In recent months, I have been struck by relatively lenient sentences handed down by several different District Courts when sentencing physicians pleading to multiple counts of drug diversion (i.e., prescription drug crimes). I have defended physicians and pharmacists facing prescription drug charges long enough to recognize trends. Thus far, I haven’t commented, but today I am prompted to do so because I sense there may be a new trend, or new opportunities, for those that are paying attention. Here is one recent example:
West Virginia physician was sentenced in Federal District Court to a year and a day in jail after pleading guilty to seven felonies for illegal distribution of oxycodone. The sentence included an $18,200 penalty, and required the physician surrender her medical license, but for those who are unaware of typical sentences for federal drug charges, this sentence is lenient! According to news reports, this physician had both prior legal and disciplinary history, was charged with a 100-count indictment alleging that she and two coworkers wrote 157 illegal prescriptions for oxycodone, oxymorphone, methadone, and methylphenidate, and the physician authorized pre-signed, blank prescription forms, for use by her staff. I am aware of much harsher sentences on what would appear to be much “cleaner” records.
A new trend or opportunity?
I haven’t done the research, and do not presently have the case to justify the time and expense, but for those physicians (and their lawyers) currently preparing to plead and be sentenced,a six-month review of recent federal District Court sentences involving drug diversion pleas around the country may be a worthy endeavor. A little research may turn up other similar news reports of relatively lenient sentences, suggesting better results for physicians sentenced for prescription drug crimes than I have seen for a while. There is perhaps something to be learned.
This year marks ten years since the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of Gonzales v. Oregon (406 KB), decided January 17, 2006. In this case, the United States Supreme Court affirmed the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion (263 KB), which had earlier affirmed the federal District Court’s opinion (1.78 MB) enjoining former United States Attorney General John Ashcroft from prosecuting Oregon physicians and pharmacists.
Against the DEA, healthcare defense attorney seeks injunction
Normally, as a healthcare defense attorney, someone else, for example, a licensing Board or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), initiates the litigation. In this case, however, in order to protect physicians and pharmacists throughout the State of Oregon, it was necessary that I become the plaintiffs’ attorney. I sued former Attorney General John Ashcroft and the DEA in federal District Court on behalf of a physician and a pharmacist who were threatened with federal criminal investigations, prosecutions, fines, and imprisonment. See Complaint (1.24 MB).
Important victory for physicians and pharmacists everywhere
The opinion by the United States Supreme Court is an important victory for physicians, pharmacists, and patients everywhere, because it establishes the precedent that the United States Attorney General may not define the scope of legitimate medical practice, and that the States, not the federal government, regulate the practice of medicine. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority of the Court, concluded his 28 page opinion writing:
“The Government, in the end, maintains that the prescription requirement delegates to a single Executive officer the power to effect a radical shift of authority from the States to the Federal Government to define general standards of medical practice in every locality. The text and structure of the CSA show that Congress did not have this far-reaching intent to alter the federal-state balance and the congressional role in maintaining it. Gonzales v. Oregon (406 KB)(Kennedy, J.)”
This victory stands today – the injunction against the DEA is still in effect! This case is discussed in more detail on the appellate practice page of this website.
Pharmacist dispensed without a “legitimate medical purpose”
A Florida pharmacist was sentenced last week to 24 years in prison on multiple charges that include dispensing oxycodone without a “legitimate medical purpose.” The evidence against the pharmacist was summarized as follows: The pharmacist (1) accepted fake prescriptions from (2) customers who came in groups (3) from far distances to get (4) oxycodone. The prescriptions were written by (5) known suspect prescribers and (6) the patients paid a premium, in cash, for the oxycodone. In other words, the pharmacist failed to screen for the “red flags” of drug diversion. Here is a link to the story: http://www.pharmacytimes.com/news/pharmacist-to-serve-24-years-in-prison-for-illegal-oxycodone-dispensing.
The Oregon Board of Pharmacy expects pharmacists to screen for “red flags”
I can assure you from my work as a healthcare defense attorney defending physicians, pharmacists, and prescribing nurses against prescription drug charges by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that screening for red flags is expected of all prescribing and dispensing practitioners. Agreeable or not, screening for red flags is also important because whether a pharmacist screened for red flags will be considered by the Oregon Board of Pharmacy and DEA drug diversion investigators whenever there is suspected drug diversion. The Oregon Board of Pharmacy addresses screening for red flags on its website at: http://www.oregon.gov/Pharmacy/pages/index.aspx), and further links to an YouTube educational video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WY9BDgcdxaM&feature=youtu.be. If you are an Oregon pharmacist, I encourage you to view this video.
Ask yourself: How many doctors has the expert’s testimony convicted?
I have the privilege of defending physicians, pharmacists and nurses before state licensing Boards and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In one such case defending against the DEA, there was much discussion about which expert physician had the better qualifications – our expert, or the the government’s expert? Each was capable of qualifying as an “expert witness,” but I feared my client, the defendant-physician, took too much comfort in the better qualifications of his expert. I feared this nuanced discussion of which expert witness had the better qualifications was creating a false sense well-being mere weeks before trial. For me, perhaps the more important question is how many doctors has the expert’s testimony convicted?
Do not dismiss the DEA’s expert witness
One thing is certain, if the DEA’s expert witness has led a jury to convict another physician, that’s a dangerous witness, despite any perceived lack of qualifications. In my experience, it is not the expert witness’ qualifications so much as it is what the expert is willing to say to a jury.
And do not become complacent
I can tell many stories where the physician believed the risk of conviction, or the risk of a lengthy prison sentence, was low. In my experience, physicians and their families often rationalize why they won’t be convicted, or, if they are convicted, why they will receive a lenient sentence, perhaps probation, or time served, or one year, only to be sentenced to 5 years or more, and in one case, to 15 years. While I have obtained good results, and have even obtained the release from prison of two physicians, most often, it doesn’t happen that way. If you want to see for yourself, search the internet using some of these search terms: “physician convicted,” “doctor convicted,” “physician sentenced,” “doctor sentenced,” “physician acquitted,” and “doctor acquitted.” You will soon discover that good results for defendant-physicians facing DEA prosecutions are few and far between. Prepare accordingly.