DEA Steps Up Raids of Pain Management Physicians and Pharmacies in Houston

 

Over the past month, the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration has drastically increased their activity in the Houston area. This includes a dramatic upswing in the number of unannounced raids targeting pain management physicians, physician assistants, nurse practitioner, and pharmacies. At this juncture, most every pain management clinic and pharmacy in the Houston should be aware of the coordinated campaign being conducted against pain management medicine by the DEA, local law enforcement, the Texas Medical Board, and the Texas State Board of Pharmacy. For background information please refer to the numerous posts concerning this topic on this blog.

To date, the government's strategy has largely focused on identifying the largest prescribers and dispensers of the most commonly prescribed medications for pain management— hydrocodone and some type of muscle relaxer, usually Soma— and then targeting these facilities as well as the associated physicians and pharmacists. Oftentimes, the physician, mid-level practitioner, or pharmacist will only first learn they have been targeted when the DEA and associated agencies suddenly appear at their place of business brandishing badges and search warrants. This will be closely followed by a temporary suspension hearing before the Texas Medical Board or Texas State Board of Pharmacy intended to immediately suspend the practitioner's license.

Based on the number of phone calls to my law firm in the last month, it is clear the government's tactics have shifted away from selectively targeting the highest prescribers and dispensers of pain management medications. The DEA is now engaging in a much wider, almost indiscriminate, operation of raiding pain management clinics and the pharmacies that fill their scripts. Many of these raids appear focused merely on seizing records and equipment.

Traditionally, virtually every search and seizure has included a demand by the DEA that the physician or pharmacy owner immediately surrender their controlled substances registration. This is accompanied by vague threats of criminal and/or administrative prosecution if the licensee declines. During the most recent set of raids, the DEA has not consistently requested the surrender of the physician or pharmacy owner's registration. In some instances, the DEA has even specifically told the client they are free to reopen.

This emerging pattern of practice likely indicates the DEA and local law enforcement are amassing documents and information to later be used for mass indictments in federal and state criminal courts. The Houston District Attorney's office has recently suffered several setbacks in their prosecution of pain management / non-therapeutic prescribing cases. These loses probably heralded the current shift of tactics and more careful preparation of cases prior to filing. The DEA may also be looking to pursue more widespread administrative revocation of perceived wrong-doers' controlled substances registrations.

Regardless of the meaning or implications of this change, any physician or pharmacist who is raided by the DEA should immediately contact an attorney with experience representing clients accused of non-therapeutic prescribing/dispensing in both the criminal and administrative arenas. These cases are pursued zealously by the applicable agencies and usually involve a multi-front assault criminally through state or federal court and administratively through the person's controlled substances registration and applicable state licensing board.

Moreover, a physician, pharmacist, or mid-level practitioner should not surrender their controlled substances registration prior to consulting with an attorney. The DEA's raids are designed to intimidate and many practitioners make the mistake of buckling to the government's threats and surrender their certificates. This is a reflexive request on the part of the DEA and does not actually mean the person has done anything wrong or that the government has a good case. Additionally, even though my firm has been very successful in obtaining the reissuance of clients' surrendered controlled substances registrations, the reinstatement process is onerous and time-consuming and the intervening damage to the client's medical practice or pharmacy can be devastating.  

Any physician or pharmacy who has been raided by the DEA should immediately contact an attorney, preferably during the actual raid. You have the right to speak to attorney prior to providing a statement or making any decision concerning your certificate. The stakes are very high in these cases and a successful outcome is often dependent on securing competent counsel at the earliest possible stage.     

Combined State and Federal Task Force Clamps Down on Alleged Pill-Mills in Houston

 

Over the last few years substantial momentum has been steadily building on both the administrative and criminal fronts against physicians whose practice primarily or substantially involves pain management and the pharmacists who file their prescriptions. In many instances, this governmental clamp down is fully justified as every pharmacist and physician familiar with this practice area is well aware of the significant problem associated with the non-therapeutic prescribing of powerful narcotics and other controlled substances. Tragically, many physicians and pharmacies who provide legitimate pain control have also been captured in this ever-widening net. The consequences can be severe and can include the loss, restriction, or temporary suspension of the individual/entity's state license, loss of a physician's DEA and DPS controlled substances registrations, substantial monetary fines, and even criminal prosecution.   

As an attorney who has defended numerous physicians, pharmacists, and pharmacies in both state and federal administrative and criminal actions, it has been my impression that the pace of this clamp-down has only increased. I hope to write a series of articles detailing different aspects of non-therapeutic prescribing/dispensing cases and what practitioners and pharmacists can expect should they be unfortunate enough to be targeted under this or a related claim. This article will focus on the combined state-federal task force presently sweeping Texas to shut-down so-called "pill mills." 

The Pill-Mill Taskforce:

The expression “pill-mill” is becoming an increasingly recognizable term to the general public due to investigative journalistic pieces done by national news outlets like 20/20 and CBS News. A true pill-mill is typically comprised of a network of dubious physicians and pharmacists that dole out controlled substance prescriptions to individuals, based not on medical necessity, but on their cash value on the street.

Along with growing media exposure came the realization by government regulators and law enforcement officials that much of the pill-mill activity in Texas is based in Harris County. In response, a taskforce of interested state and federal agencies and law enforcement entities was formed to combat non-therapeutic prescribing in the Houston area. The taskforce includes members of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Texas Medical Board (TMB), the Texas State Board of Pharmacy (TSBP), and local law enforcement. The taskforce has been very aggressive in pursuing and sanctioning Houston pain management clinics and pharmacies. As discussed above, the consequences can be severe and extend all the way to convictions for serious felony offenses.  

Targeted Physicians and Pharmacies:

The joint task force uses several different methods to select targeted practitioners and dispensing pharmacies. These include utilizing databanks maintained by the DEA to pull down the largest prescribers and dispensers of certain medications within a given county. The task force also refers to the list of pain clinics which were required to register with the Texas Medical Board following the last Legislative session. Other red flags include all-cash transactions, high numbers of daily patients, large or atypical numbers of narcotics and other targeted medications, frequent use of the pain cocktail of Soma, Xanax, and Hydrocodone.

Once targeted, a physician or pharmacy is immediately placed on the defensive as they face a coordinated assault by law enforcement officials, the DEA and DPS, as well as the applicable state licensing agencies. These investigations are accusatory in nature and generally proceed on the presumption that the individual/entity is engaged or participating in non-therapeutic prescribing. Oftentimes the first indication that an individual has been targeted will be an armed raid of the person's practice or pharmacy and the seizing of their prescription or dispensing records. The physician or pharmacist may be asked on the spot to sign a statement or affidavit connected with the allegations or asked by the DEA or DPS to surrender their controlled substances registration.

Again, it bears reminding that the sudden arrival of the task force may only be because the targeted entity showed up high on the DEA's records on the volume of narcotics prescribed/dispensed or some other such indication which, by itself, has little bearing on whether or not such prescriptions are for a legitimate therapeutic need. I have represented several physicians targeted by the task force despite their having in place rigorous safeguards and practices designed to ensure that all prescriptions are for legitimate medical conditions and taken only at a therapeutic dose.

This task force represents the leading edge of regulatory pushback at what has increasingly been identified as a widespread problem: physicians and pharmacies who fuel prescription drug abuse by persons who lack a legitimate medical need. The problem is that this combined dragnet continues to ensnare numerous physicians and pharmacists who provide genuine and legitimate pain relief to Texas patients.   

Any physician or pharmacist contacted or raided by the joint task force or any of its individual members should seek legal representation immediately. If you are raided by the task force you should contact an attorney on the spot and refrain from giving any oral or written statement, signing any documents, surrendering your license or controlled substance registration, or acquiescing to any demand without first seeking legal counsel. The stakes are very high and a mistake could permanently prejudice your ability to defend yourself.

One Rule to Catch Them All: Licensing Board's Use of Unprofessional Conduct

 

As a general rule, licensing Boards such as the Texas Medical Board, Texas Board of Nursing and Texas State Board of Pharmacy are prohibited from exceeding the powers granted to them by the Legislature. The Legislature passes enabling statutes that create the licensing Boards and circumscribe their jurisdiction. The Boards may then pass administrative rules expounding and filing in the blanks of areas which the Legislature has order them to regulate. These rules cannot conflict with the statute, however, and are, in fact, subordinate to it. Thus, if the Legislature did not give them the power to regulate a particular activity, the Boards generally cannot expand their jurisdiction to regulate that activity by adopting an administrative rule. Problems arise, however, when the statutes are imprecise or vague in limiting the Boards’ powers.

 

Given the multitude of laws instituted by our Legislators, imprecise and vague definitions are bound to crop up. Such is the case with the term “unprofessional conduct.” As an example, the Medical Practice Act allows the Texas Medical Board to discipline its licensees if they commit “unprofessional or dishonorable conduct that is likely to deceive or defraud the public, or injure the public.” Tex. Occ. Code 164.052(a)(5). Note that there need not be any actual harm done. While the statute goes on to give some guidance as to what conduct deceives or defrauds the public (Tex. Occ. Code 164.053) it gives us no definition of what constitutes unprofessional or dishonorable conduct that is likely to injure the public. 

 

Similarly, the Texas Board of Nursing is allowed to discipline nurses for unprofessional or dishonorable conduct that, in the board’s opinion, is likely to deceive, defraud or injure a patient or the public. Tex. Occ. Code 301.452(b)(10). Likewise, the Texas State Board of Pharmacy can discipline its licensees for both unprofessional conduct and gross immorality. Tex. Occ. Code §§565.001(a)(2)-(3). Troublingly, the Legislature appears to have left it in the hands of the Pharmacy Board to determine the definition of unprofessional conduct and gross immorality. 

 

How do the licensing Boards use this power? The Boards have frequently used this provision as a hook to discipline licensees over whom they would otherwise have no statutory power. For example, the Medical Board is explicitly allowed to discipline licensees for convicted misdemeanors if the misdemeanors can be related to their practice as a physician (Tex. Occ. Code § 53.021(a)(1)) or involve “moral turpitude” (Tex. Occ. Code § 164.051(a)(2)(B)). Moral turpitude is another vaguely defined term; it is generally implicated in crimes involving fraud or deceit but is otherwise difficult to characterize and apply. Regardless, by classifying other misdemeanors as “unprofessional conduct”, however, the boards can extend their powers beyond the limits set by the Legislature.

 

The Board of Nursing, which is subject to similar statutory restrictions, has labeled “unprofessional conduct” such misdemeanors as possession of an unlicensed firearm, criminal mischief, obstruction of a highway, and criminal trespass, none of which are a crime relating to the practice of nursing or classified as an offense of moral turpitude. I have also encountered cases where the Board was reluctant to license an individual or wished to impose discipline based on conduct which is not even criminal, such as a client’s former employment as a stripper or a person’s private conversations on an internet social networking site. Furthermore, I have seen multiple situations where a client is being pursued due to what is essentially an employment dispute, such as lying on an initial application, an area over which the Board involved likely has no jurisdiction.  

 

In conclusion, licensing Boards frequently utilize this method as a means to expand their jurisdiction beyond their enabling statutes. “Unprofessional conduct” is used as a pretext to regulate licensees for activities that do not involve the licensed occupations at all. If you are facing an investigation or disciplinary matter before a state agency and feel the basis of their action has no relationship or bearing on your license or practice, you very well may be right and would be wise to contact an attorney familiar with the respective Board’s statutes and disciplinary process.

Recent Upturn in Disciplinary Activity by the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners

 

In the past two months I have noticed a significant rise in the number of Dentist’s seeking potential legal representation before the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners. This is not surprising as the Dental Board has recently come under fire from both the press and Legislature for what is perceived as a record of lax or ineffectual enforcement. To attempt to remedy this situation the last Legislative Session authorized a sizable increase in the Dental Board’s budget for investigations and disciplinary matters.

 

The Texas Dental Board has been rapidly placing these new funds to use by hiring a new General Counsel, Joy Sparks, as well as several other new attorneys, paralegals, investigators, and miscellaneous support staff. Combined with the additional personnel, the Dental Board has begun pursuing dentists and other licensees for complaints and criminal episodes it would have likely either ignored or sought minimal discipline for in the past.

 

In one of my recent cases, the Board of Dental Examiners is seeking to impose a multi-year reprimand on the basis of a comparatively minor misdemeanor for which the dentist was placed on deferred adjudication. Previously, this kind of offense would have probably been ignored by the Board or only resulted in them demanding a less severe sanction; however, in this new climate the dentists may be facing a lengthy fight to avoid the imposition of an unreasonable Order.

 

The dilemma faced by this dentist and other’s like him is even if they are the subject of a comparatively minor case, should they agree to such discipline they will potentially be required to report it to their provider networks, malpractice insurers, any other credentialing bodies, other state’s where they are licensed, and the Department of Public Safety and DEA in reference to their controlled substances registration. The import is that what may start as a small case at the Dental Board can lead to a whole host of secondary effects which can affect a dentist’s ability to smoothly function as an ongoing concern.

 

The Dental Board has also initiated the process necessary to promulgate new disciplinary rules which promise to sharpen the teeth of the Board’s enforcement wing. I intend to dedicate a blog article to this topic once these proposed rules assume a more definite shape.    

 

The bottom-line is that Texas dentists should expect to see more activity from the Dental Board in the coming year and should ensure they keep abreast of rule changes and how they may impact their practice. Due to the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners’ more severe stance towards discipline, I strongly encourage any dentist subject to an investigation or disciplinary action to contact an attorney with experience in both administrative law and the representation of licensees before the Dental Board. In almost every case, early involvement by an attorney familiar with the process will lead to a better outcome and minimize any negative effects on the dentist’s practice. 

Texas State Board of Pharmacy Vigorously Pursues New Sanction Guidelines for Criminal Offenses

 

In the past year the Texas State Board of Pharmacy has started attempting to strictly enforce their recent amendments to the Board’s administrative rules related to punishment for criminal offenses. These rules prescribe certain standard disciplinary sanctions for a wide-ranging list of specific offenses. Pharmacists with either a criminal record or a pending criminal case should take note as the sanctions involved are generally quite severe and can include revocation of a licensee’s registration by the Pharmacy Board.

 

For example, according to the guidelines a pharmacist who is convicted or placed on deferred adjudication/probation for a felony drug-related offense under Chapter 481 or 483 of the Health and Safety Code related to fraud, or the manufacture, delivery, theft, or possession with intent to deliver of drugs is subject to the denial or revocation of their pharmacist license until 20 years after the date of disposition. Even at the twenty year mark, the guidelines state the Texas State Board of Pharmacy’s intent to place the pharmacist on a five year probationary order.

 

For those pharmacists convicted or placed on deferred adjudication for the felony possession of drugs, the guidelines state that the Board will deny, revoke, or suspend the professional’s license if they are still on probation. Likewise, if the pharmacist is not on probation but it has been five or less years since the date of disposition, then they are eligible for a five year probationary order but only if they have first been evaluated by an addiction specialist who opines that they are safe to continue practicing pharmacy. Even if it has been over twenty years since the date of disposition, the TSBP still wants to place the pharmacist on a one year probationary order. Of additional note is that the guidelines apply essentially the same set of penalties to a pharmacist convicted or placed on deferred adjudication for misdemeanor possession.

 

It has been my experience as an attorney that the Texas State Board of Pharmacy tries to strictly adhere to these guidelines at the informal stage of the investigatory process only to become somewhat more receptive to mitigating evidence and other factors once a case has been filed at SOAH. Unfortunately, I have seen many pro se or poorly represented pharmacists accept the Board’s settlement offer, however harsh, at the informal stage out of sense that nothing better is possible.

 

Legally speaking, the TSBP’s sanction guidelines are only just that: guidelines. Although an Administrative Law Judge will give the guidelines some deference at a formal administrative hearing, Pharmacy Board attorneys are still required to show that under the specific factors present in that case, the requested sanction is warranted. On the flipside, it is the burden of the pharmacist and their attorney to draw out the mitigating factors and demonstrate why a lesser sanction is in order. This necessarily demands an intimate and working knowledge of the rest of the Pharmacy Board’s rules, the Texas Pharmacy Act, and other pertinent sections of the Texas Occupations Code, including Chapter 53, as to first, what are the relevant mitigating factors and second, how to get them into evidence.

 

Every pharmacist with a criminal record or a pending criminal case should be aware of the Texas State Board of Pharmacy’s new sanction policies. If you are in such a situation I strongly advise that you contact an attorney experienced in administrative law and representation before the Texas State Board of Pharmacy to discuss possible outcomes and preemptive courses of action.

Enough is Enough: Texas Board of Nursing Pursuit of Licensees Following Criminal Acquittal

 

Recently I have represented several nurses before the Texas Board of Nursing who were being pursued by Board Staff for allegations for which they had already been acquitted by the criminal justice system. As one would expect, this quasi-double jeopardy is extremely frustrating to the nurse. Despite already having hired a criminal lawyer and clearing their name in criminal court, they must now hire a license defense attorney to do the same thing before the Board of Nursing.

 

The most recent example, involved a case where the nurse had been accused of an inappropriate touching by a ten year old girl. The girl claimed that she had awaken at a sleep over at the client’s house to discover the nurse touching her; however, there were several inconsistencies with the girl’s testimony and it later came out that she was friends with another young girl who had made the exact same allegation (down to every detail) against my client several years prior but had subsequently admitted to her mother that she had made it up.

 

At the close of the nurse’s criminal trial, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of not guilty. Moreover, Child Protective Services had conducted their own investigation into the matter and determined that nothing had occurred. Yet, despite his acquittal and the negative finding by Child Protective Services, the Texas Board of Nursing decided to pursue their own disciplinary action against my client, seeking the revocation of his nursing license.

 

Thankfully, my firm was able to enforce the expunction order which had previously been entered by the criminal court to prevent the Board from using second-hand records from that trial to prove their case. Instead, the Board of Nursing was forced to bring the girl to testify in person at a hearing at the State Office of Administrative Hearings. Based on conflicting testimony from our witnesses and several discrepancies between the girl’s original outcry and her testimony at the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge concluded that the Board of Nursing had not met their burden of proof and accordingly entered an opinion favorable to the nurse.

 

I understand that the Board has a mission to protect the public from bad nurses; nevertheless, at some point one has to think that enough is enough. A person should only have to clear their name so many times before it is reasonable for the Board to think twice about wasting state money to retry a licensee for the same conduct.

 

The underlying lesson is that simply because you received a not guilty verdict in criminal court or the District Attorney decided not to prosecute, you are not shielded from a licensure action by the Texas Board of Nursing. They frequently subject a nurse licensee to yet another legal action where they are forced to again clear their name or face severe restrictions on, or even termination, of their livelihood. If you are facing such a situation with the Texas Board of Nursing, I highly recommend that you contact a seasoned administrative attorney with experience before the Texas Board of Nursing and the State Office of Administrative Hearings as otherwise you could be risking your license.

Texas State Board of Pharmacy Overreaches Statutory Mandate

 

Texas State Board of Pharmacy Overreaches Statutory Mandate Regarding Deferred Adjudications/Community Supervision:

 

I am currently serving as the defense attorney in several cases before the Texas State Board of Pharmacy that involve clients who are presently on deferred adjudication/community supervision for drug related offenses. In all of these cases the Board has taken the position that their Rules mandate the outright revocation of the license of any pharmacist or pharmacist tech who is on community supervision or probation for a felony drug related offense regardless of the circumstances or any other factor. This is outrageous and a clear contravention of their statutory mandate.

 

All administrative licensing agencies are creatures of statute and accordingly must derive their authority to regulate from law passed by the state Legislature. The Texas Pharmacy Act sets forth the public mandate of the Texas State Board of Pharmacy in § 551.002 of the Texas Occupations Code. This Sections states that it is the purpose of the Pharmacy Act and the Pharmacy Board “to regulate in the public interest the practice of pharmacy in this state as a professional practice…” in such a way that will “promote, preserve, and protect the public health, safety, and welfare.” Tex. Occ. Code § 551.002. Try as it might, the Board must regulate and discipline pharmacists while remaining within the confines of this public mandate.

 

In defiance of § 551.002, the Board has, within the past three years, passed and frequently amended Title 22 § 281.64 of the Texas Administrative Code in such a way as to make it impossible for any pharmacist or pharmacist tech to retain their license if they are also placed on deferred adjudication. For example, under Rule 218.64 any pharmacist or pharmacist tech who has been convicted of or is currently on deferred adjudication or deferred disposition for a felony involving either 1) mere possession or 2) the manufacture, delivery, or possession with intent to deliver, fraud, or theft of drugs is automatically subject to the revocation or denial of their license. This is without regard to the individual’s culpability, rehabilitation, age at the time of offense, or current fitness to serve as a licensed pharmacist or pharmacist tech. In many situations the pharmacist is not even deemed eligible for licensure until 20 years has passed since the date of disposition.

 

This Rule is in clear conflict with the Board’s statutory mandate. That mandate requires the Board to regulate “in the public interest” and in such a way that will “promote, preserve, and protect the public health, safety, and welfare.” Tex. Occ. Code § 551.002. Licensure revocation based merely in the bare fact of being on community supervision or probation for a drug-related offense satisfies neither of these standards. This Rule takes no account of the pharmacist or pharmacist tech’s extent of involvement in the criminal offense, whether they were even aware a criminal offense was being committed, or whether their participation was minimal or expansive. No account is taken of the licensee’s subsequent rehabilitation, their youthfulness at the time of the offense, or their present and future value to the community. The only thing that matters is whether or not twenty years have passed since the date of disposition.

 

Keep in mind that under Chapter 53 of the Texas Occupations Code licensing agencies such as the Pharmacy Board are required to take into account a set of specified mitigating factors, many of which are listed above, when taking a disciplinary action against a licensee who has actually been convicted of the same offense. Arguably on this ground alone, the Pharmacy Board’s Rule 281.64 is ultra vires (A Latin phrase crucial to administrative law which translates as “beyond the powers”) and hence void.

 

The only real explanation for this outrageous policy is a desire to punish pharmacists merely for the fact that they are on criminal probation and thereby guard the public image of the Pharmacy Board. There is no rational reason for summarily revoking a pharmacist who is on deferred adjudication for a drug-related offense. This is underlined by the fact that the Board freely permits chemically dependent and impaired pharmacists to continue to practice. Almost by definition these licensees have committed acts that would be deemed, had they been prosecuted, criminal possession, prescription fraud, and any of a number of offenses under the Texas Health and Safety Code. Many of these licensees also have ongoing addiction and chemical dependency issues, a circumstance which would arguably make their continued licensure more dangerous to public health and safety.

 

Furthermore, in my practice I have served as the defense attorney for hundreds of other licensed health care professionals before the Texas Medical Board, the Texas Board of Dental Examiners, and the State Board of Veterinary Examiners. These agencies are all notable because they all regulate licensees who hold prescriptive authority. None of these agencies have a similar provision in their administrative Rules. It is unclear why these Texas Boards feel that the public health and safety is safeguarded by permitting their licensees, who are also on felony deferred adjudication, to continue to practice under probated suspensions or subject to a reprimand whereas the Pharmacy Board demands outright revocation as a matter of law. Likely they realize that revocation as a matter of law is unreasonable, overly draconian, and likely beyond the bounds of their administrative authority. Even a Texas criminal court has greater discretion in fitting an appropriate punishment to each case.

 

It remains to be seen whether or not Rule 281.64 can actually withstand legal scrutiny in a full contested case or declaratory judgment action. I feel confident that it cannot, however, even challenging this Rule places the pharmacist in a position where they have spend extensive legal fees, not to mention time and frustration, to circumvent Rule 281.64.

 

The lesson any pharmacist or pharmacist tech should take away is that if you are on deferred adjudication for a drug-related offense you should seek the advice of an attorney immediately. This attorney should also be someone who is familiar with the Texas State Board of Pharmacy, the Pharmacy Act, and the applicable administrative rules. Early intervention can mean the difference between continuing as a pharmacist and losing your license and source of income.

Board of Nursing Overreaches Mandate in Pursuit of Ancient Criminal History

 

As most Texas nurses are now aware, the Texas Board of Nursing has for several years been performing criminal background checks as part of the renewal process. Each year a certain number of nurses who are up for renewal are required to submit fingerprints for an FBI background check. Those persons who lack any criminal history or who have previously disclosed that history to the Board need not worry. However, any licensees who do have an undisclosed criminal matter, even a minor one, should be concerned as the Board will likely use that record as an excuse to open an investigation and vigorously probe for any history or other indications that they feel indicates the person may lack fitness to practice nursing. Perhaps the most frustrating part of the Board’s policy is that they will apply the same searching examination no matter how old or miniscule the criminal record.

 

As an example, I recently served as the attorney for the spouse of a former client, who is also a nurse. His issue was that he recently received a letter from a Board investigator stating that a twenty year old arrest for misdemeanor possession of marijuana had popped up during his renewal background check and that they were opening an investigation based on it. The charge was so old that my client didn’t even remember it which is also the reason he had not disclosed it the Board. The arrest in fact is so old that it predates his entrance into nursing school. Furthermore, the fact that only an arrest showed up indicates that the local prosecutor likely decided that the matter was so minor that it did not warrant prosecution. Yet, the Board’s desire to pursue this old charge meant that he had to contact me and I dutifully sent a not so nice letter to the Board telling them to back off.

 

Essentially the Board is wasting state tax dollars and subjecting veteran nurses to searching and oftentimes humiliating investigations on the basis of decades-old minor criminal offenses which likely committed before the person was even licensed. This goes well beyond any investigatory/disciplinary mandate extended by the state legislature when they granted the Board the authority to perform extensive background checks as part of the renewal process.

The Texas Board of Nursing’s functions do include the screening of new and current licensees for the kind of criminal record which could indicate that they lack fitness to practice nursing. However, this authority does not extend to investigations and possible disciplinary action based on minor offenses committed one or two decades ago with years of uninterrupted, problem-free practice in the interim. All this does is waste Board funding and misdirect their limited resources away from pursuing licensees with genuine and ongoing issues that raise real questions about their safe practice.

 

It is unfortunate that it often takes the hiring of an attorney to convince the Board to retreat from this type of baseless investigation since they should never occur in the first place. It has been my experience as an attorney in many of these cases that the Board is essentially using the old offense as an excuse to sift into the nurse’s record and try and find anything which can then be added on as firmer grounds for disciplinary action. For example, the nurse will frequently be asked to submit to a polygraph examination and post-test forensic evaluation. As I have discussed elsewhere in my blog the Board has no authority to request this and the nurse is full within their rights to simply refuse. The problem is the nurse is never informed of this right of refusal as submission to test is presented as a mandatory matter-of-course. Following this the Board will habitually make an inappropriate referral to TPAPN based on the original criminal matter and whatever admissions or suspicious responses result from the polygraph and interview. Again the foundation for all of this can be nothing more than a decades old DWI or possession charge. 

 

Any nurse facing such a situation should consider hiring an attorney with experience representing clients before the Texas Board of Nursing. Unless they face a lawyer who knows what is and is not within their authority, the Board will likely try to initiate their own minor inquisition into your work and life history.

Am I Eligible for a Nursing License?: Declaratory Order of Eligibility for Licensure

 

I often receive calls from nursing students, or even those only considering pursuing a nursing degree, with questions concerning whether or not they will be licensed by the Board of Nursing. Typically, these individuals have a criminal record, history of misuse of controlled substances, or a mental health diagnosis that they fear will present an obstacle to successful licensure.

 

These persons have already taken best course of action by being proactive and contacting an attorney with experience before the Board and who should therefore be able to estimate the difficulty they may or may not face in applying for their license. Generally speaking most nurses with marks on their record should be able to obtain licensure. A good portion of these may have to do so under the form of a probationary license with restrictions related to whatever it is that concerns the Board.

 

For example, an applicant with a history of abuse of controlled substances may only receive their license on the condition that submit to random drug screens, attend AA meetings, successfully complete a recovery program, and work in an environment where they can be supervised by a superior nurse. A nurse with a criminal record may have to enter into an Agreed Order that provides for supervised practice and grants them only a provisional license with full licensure dependent on achieving a number of years of violation-free practice. Finally, persons with a serious psychiatric diagnosis may need to agree to an Order mandating that they continue with a specified medical treatment program to keep their condition under control.

 

The very few nurses who will likely not be issued a license are those with serious criminal convictions or an ongoing and untreated chemical dependency problem. On the issue of serious criminal offenses I am referring to convictions such as rape, sexual assault, kidnapping, injuring a child, or murder. Section 301.4535 of the Nursing Practice Act provides a list of criminal offenses for which the Board may refuse to license an applicant. Other felony convictions fall under this list as well.

 

Future nurses should note, however, that the Board is typically reluctant to license a nurse even a minor black mark on their record if they are not represented by an attorney. They will usually refuse outright or press a nurse to enter into an order with terms that are more stringent than indicated by their history. As in any disciplinary matter, the Board of nursing generally pursues the severest sanction unless the nurse has a lawyer to fight for their interests.

 

One option for students unsure of their eligibility for licensure is found in § 301.257 of the Nursing Practice Act. This section provides that a nursing student or even a person only considering attending a nursing school can file a Petition for a Declaratory Order of Eligibility for Licensure. In response, the Board of Nursing will then review that person’s history and assess whether they meet the required good moral and professional character standards. If they do, the Board Staff will issue a Declaratory Order finding that individual conditionally eligible for licensure as long as they graduate and later pass the standard nursing exams.

 

If you have questions about your eligibility for a Texas nursing license or the declaratory order procedure, please call an experienced administrative law attorney. They should be able to intelligently discuss your case and lay out your options. Don’t wait until after graduating from nursing school to find out that you may not be eligible for a Texas license.

The Need to Plea Carefully: Criminal Convictions and Medicare/Medicaid Exclusion

 

A recurring scenario in my office goes like this: A physician contacts me about a letter they have received from the Office of the Inspector General stating that they are investigating whether or not the doctor has been involved in conduct that warrants exclusion from the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Oftentimes this concerns the physician’s plea of guilty or nolo contendre to a crime involving these or other government programs or that has some other connection to health care. This is very frustrating to both me and the physician as under federal law even if they do not directly involve a federal program, if any of these crimes is a felony, the client has a serious chance of being summarily excluded.

 

Under the Social Security Act, the Office of the Inspector General must exclude a physician from Medicare and Medicaid participation for:

 

  • Conviction for any criminal offense related to a federal or state health care program;
  • Conviction for a crime relating to patient abuse;
  • Conviction for a felony connected to health care and involving fraud, theft, embezzlement, breach of fiduciary responsibility, or other financial misconduct; and
  • Conviction for a felony involving a controlled substance.

 

42 U.S.C. § 1320(a)(7).

 

The last two exclusion rules are the result of Congressional lobbying efforts by the OIG aimed at cutting down federal payments to “bad” physicians thereby saving program costs. The end product has been a set of broadly drafted laws that permit the OIG to exclude a physician who has been convicted for any of a wide array of crimes that can somehow be related back to health care. It should also press properly informed physicians into more carefully weighing their options when considering a plea.

 

Keep in mind that under the applicable federal law even a plea of nolo contendre will amount to a felony conviction. The same applies to pleas involving probation, community supervision, or deferred adjudication. Perhaps most important to remember is that an exclusion under any of the four grounds outlined above is both mandatory and for a minimum of five years. The impact on a physician’s practice and employment prospects caused by a five year exclusion is generally devastating if not fatal. Also note that under federal law, if a physician is excluded from one federal program, they are automatically excluded from all federal programs.

 

Unfortunately, most criminal defense attorneys are not aware of these serious consequences while they hammer out a plea for their physician clients. The fact is a physician should try and plea to a misdemeanor whenever possible, as an exclusion for most misdemeanors is neither mandatory nor for five years. Once a physician has been convicted of a felony related to health care, their only avenue for avoiding the mandatory exclusion is through obtaining a sole community provider waiver. See Title 42 CFR § 402.38. This is done by filing an appeal with the appropriate state agency and arguing that the physician who is to be excluded is the role provider of certain medical services to Medicare/Medicaid patients within a defined geographic area. If they state agency agrees, they will then request a waiver of exclusion from the OIG. This is a narrow exception; if like most doctors, the physician practices in a urban area, he or she will likely be ineligible unless their practice is extremely specialized.

 

The bottom-line is that any physician facing criminal charges would be prudent with contacting an attorney knowledgeable in the applicable federal law and experienced before the Office of the Inspector General. In this way, the physician can be completely informed of the potential consequences of any particular plea. Failure to do so, can result in a plea that effectively foreclose their ability to avoid federal exclusion.

 

It is also worth keeping in mind that a criminal conviction will almost certainly cause an inquiry and possible sanction by state licensing boards, professional/credentialing societies, provider networks, and institutions where the physician holds credentials. Thus Medicare/Medicaid exclusion mirrors the general characterization of medical and professional licensing law as a veritable house of cards where the removal of one can cause the rest to quickly follow suit. This is an area where the retention of an experienced attorney can make all the difference.     

Department of Public Safety Arguably Denies Due Process

 

Recently, I have represented a pharmacist whose reapplication for his controlled substances registration was denied by the Texas Department of Public Safety when he voluntarily acknowledged that he had previously been convicted of a felony. He was one of several defendants on trial for the same set of criminal transactions and his own share of the guilt was slight. It was essentially a case of bad judgment and naivety on the part of my client. He had entered into a business relationship with the wrong people and was now paying for their misdeeds. The Federal Drug Enforcement Agency had essentially agreed and declined to take action against his controlled substances registration. In addition the Texas Pharmacy Board has so far chosen not to seek any disciplinary sanction.

 

In contrast, the Texas Department of Public Safety pursuant to the Texas Controlled Substances Act § 481.063(e)(2)(A) summarily denied his reapplication on the basis of his voluntary admission of his felony conviction. This section of the Health and Safety Code provides for such denial when an applicant has been convicted or placed on community supervision or probation for a felony. Fortunately, the Texas Legislature has also inserted into this chapter a provision allowing the Director of the DPS to probate a denial under § 481.063(e)(2)(A) upon a showing of good cause. The Act and the Department of Public Safety’s own administrative rules also generally allow an applicant to request a hearing wherein they may present evidence and argument in their favor.

 

As a hearing would almost certainly be necessary to present evidence establishing good cause for a probated order, I requested one as part of my client’s response to the DPS’s decision to deny his reapplication. In reply, the DPS sent a letter reiterating their denial and pointing to § 481.063(h). This Section holds that in the case of a denial based on a felony conviction, the provisions of the Texas Administrative Procedure Act do not apply. This is significant in that this bars access to the normal administrative process, most importantly, a licensee’s right to a full evidentiary hearing before an Administrative Law Judge.

 

As an attorney with extensive experience in this field, I must say that to my knowledge this is unique among Texas professional licensing law. A professional’s right to an administrative hearing following an initial decision by a licensing board is generally considered sacrosanct because of due process concerns. This is rightly so, as denial of a pharmacist’s controlled substances registration is a significant government taking, essentially the removal of a pharmacist’s ability to make a living. The Administrative Procedure Act’s hearing provisions are meant to safeguard the due process guarantees of the Texas and Federal Constitution.

 

The removal of APA protections in this case would be less troublesome if the DPS instead provided some adequate alternative. They could for instance, as is common among state and federal agencies, simply adopt rules providing for a hearing before a hearing examiner at the Board. They have not chosen to do so. When we sent in a remedial packet of documents outlining his limited culpability for the underlying offense, the DPS sent a terse response that they remained firm in their decision and were still not going to allow my client a hearing.

 

This is all the more strange given that one would think it impossible to make an informed decision as to whether good cause is applicable in a specific case unless the subject party and their attorney are given an opportunity to argue this point. As is, the current state of the Texas Controlled Substances Act and DPS practice places unlimited and unchallengeable discretion with the DPS Director as to whether or not grant a probated order. This is a clear denial of due process as a licensee is given no meaningful opportunity to contest the DPS’s findings.

 

What is more, given the current state of the law it is not clear whether a pharmacist denied under § 481.063(e)(2)(A) has any opportunity for judicial review either. It is basic Texas law that a party may not judicially appeal an adverse administration decision without first submitting the administrative record in evidence. As it stands there is no administrative record; no findings of fact or findings of law, nor any testimony or set of evidentiary documents. Even if the handful of short letters between the DPS and my client were found to be a sufficient administrative record, it is unclear as to what the reviewing court could use as a basis for its holding. There is simply no record that can serve as the basis for a meaningful review of the Department of Public Safety’s decision.

 

The DPS needs to either provide an adequate alternative hearing procedure or ask the state legislature to bring § 481.063(e)(2)(A) back within the purview of the APA. If they don’t, one can only hope that the legislature decides to fill this legal loophole on their own initiative.

Serious Felony Offesnes & Discipline by the Texas Board of Nursing

All nurses who have been convicted or pled guilty or no contest to certain felony offenses should be aware that under a recent addition to the Nursing Practice Act, the Texas Nursing Board holds expanded authority to impose tough sanctions. Already a serious matter, an initial conviction for these offenses now carries additional consequences including mandatory revocation under certain conditions.

Chapter 301.4535 of the Texas Nursing Practice Act states that the Texas Board of Nursing must suspend or refuse to initially license any nurse / applicant who has been initially convicted of:

  • Murder under § 19.02, capital murder under § 19.03, or manslaughter under § 19.04 of the Texas Penal Code;
  • Kidnapping or unlawful restraint under § 20 of the Penal Code, when the offense was punished as a felony or state jail felony;
  • Sexual Assault under § 22.011 of the Penal Code;
  • Aggravated Sexual Assault under § 22.021
  • Continuous sexual abuse of a young child or children under § 21.02, or indecency with a child under § 21.11 of the Penal Code;
  • Aggravated Assault under Section 22.021 of the Penal Code:
  • Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly injuring a child, elderly individual, or disabled individual under § 22.04 of the Penal Code;
  • Intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly abandoning or endangering a child under § 22.041 of the Penal Code;
  • Aiding suicide under § 22.08 when the offense was punished as a state jail felony;
  • An offense under § 25.07 of the Penal Code that was punished as a felony;
  • An offense under § 25.071 of the Penal Code that was punished as a felony;
  • An agreement to abduct a child from custody under § 25.031 of the Penal Code;
  • The sale or purchase of a child under § 25.08 of the Penal Code;
  • Robbery under § 29.02 of the Penal Code;
  • Aggravated Robbery under § 29.03 of the Penal Code;
  • An offense for which a defendant is required to register as a sex offender under Chapter 62 of the Code of Criminal Procedure; or
  • An offense under the law of another state, federal law, or the Uniform Code of Military Justice that contains elements that are substantially similar to the elements of an offense listed in this subsection.

Note that the statute’s coverage includes licensees who have been convicted or pled guilty to one of the above offenses and who are then sentenced to deferred adjudication, community supervision, or probation. The basic message of §301.4535 is that the Board must and will automatically suspend an active license or refuse to initially license a nurse who has been initially convicted of one of the above specified offenses.

Over the objections of the Nursing Board, my law firm has successfully argued before the State Office of Administrative Hearings that when read in conjunction with the rest of the Nursing Practice Act, the Board’s own rules, and the Texas Occupations Code, § 301.4535 authorizes the Board to issue a stayed suspension as well as an enforced suspension. The former allows a licensee to continue practicing as a nurse while the latter does not. However, in order to effectively show that they qualify for a stayed order, a nurse will almost certainly need to present evidence and argument at an official hearing as to why, given the circumstances of their case, a stayed suspension would be appropriate. This involves the gathering and presentation of remedial evidence, possibly before an Administrative Law Judge in a trial-like setting. The eye of an experienced attorney is often able to pick out the kinds of beneficial remedial evidence which a layperson will miss. Further, a nurse’s right to such a hearing is contingent on their making a timely request for it. To ensure that you meet this deadline, consultation with an attorney may be advisable.

Another issue nurses who have been convicted of one of the listed offenses should be aware of is of the need to disclose this fact to the Board. Chapter 301.4535(b) holds that the failure of a nurse to disclose their felony conviction to the Board will result in the automatic revocation of their license, or a refusal to grant or renew a license, if the Board later learns that the conviction has been made final and it has not yet been 5 years since the nurse completed the probation or community supervision associated with the offense. Note that this subsection also applies to a plea of guilty or nolo contendre. Thus a failure to report can remove even the possibility of a stayed order.

Self-reporting facts that may lead to a disciplinary action can be a delicate matter, and I urge nurses to seek the advice of an attorney with experience before the Board when considering if and how to make such a disclosure. In the past my firm has represented numerous clients who have followed the mistaken advice of lawyers who are not familiar with the Board’s policies on full-disclosure for initial and renewal license applications. Self-reporting under § 301.4535(b) is all the more potentially hazardous given the serious minimum penalties involved.

The Texas Board of Nursing & Minor Criminal Infractions

For the January 17-18, 2008 meeting of the Texas Board of Nursing (formerly the Texas Board of Nurse Examiners), attorney and general counsel Dusty Johnson presented an informational report on the Board’s policy in regards to minor criminal infractions and licensing. Of particular interest for current and future Texas nurses, the report provides a list of crimes which the Board has deemed to be too minor to warrant an investigation or disciplinary order in connection with a license application or renewal. Following the mandate of Chapter 53 of the Texas Government Code, the BON (BNE) recognizes that there are some forms of criminal conduct which are not sufficiently related to nursing to bring into question the licensee’s competency. Specifically, the listed criminal offenses are compared to the Board’s own Rule 213.28(i) concerning “youthful indiscretions.” Also of note is the finding that the Nursing Board now annually investigates approximately 3000 “positive hits” resulting from the standard FBI criminal background check required of all license applicants.

The criminal offenses considered not to be sufficiently related to the practice of nursing as to warrant an investigation or disciplinary action are:

  1. One misdemeanor DWI/DUI (not on probation)
  2. One misdemeanor offense of possession of marijuana
  3. Up to two misdemeanor theft by check
  4. One misdemeanor domestic/family violence
  5. One misdemeanor theft over $20 less than $250 (normally assoc. with shoplifting)
  6. One misdemeanor shop lifting
  7. One misdemeanor criminal mischief
  8. Misdemeanor graffiti
  9. One misdemeanor criminal trespass
  10. One misdemeanor disorderly conduct
  11. Up to two misdemeanor Public Intoxication
  12. Up to two misdemeanor Pan Handling
  13. Misdemeanor “loud noise” violations
  14. One misdemeanor Reckless Driving
  15. Misdemeanor minor in possession of tobacco
  16. One misdemeanor selling alcohol to a minor
  17. Failure to appear
  18. Vehicular molestation (slashing tires)

It has been my experience that the Board is oftentimes less than faithful to the above stated policy. In fact a discerning reader will note that the exemption of the above offenses is subject to the proviso that the Board does not deem them connected with patient care or the practice of nursing. In reality BNE attorney’s are all too ready to stretch any reading of what relates to the practice of nursing beyond all plausibility in their crusade to discipline nurses. For example, of the above, DWI convictions/deferred adjudication, domestic/family violence, and any form of theft are frequently the basis of Board of Nurse Examiners license investigations and disciplinary action. The Board’s mandate of protecting Texas medical consumers while also ensuring the licensing of much needed new nurses would be better served when the BNE decides to rigorously adhere to these stated policies.