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.