Several months ago I began a series of posts focused on the combined State and Federal taskforce sweeping the Houston metropolitan area targeting physicians and pharmacists viewed as engaged in the non-therapeutic prescribing and dispensing of narcotics, particularly for the treatment of pain. This process continues to develop and generate new sets of licensees’ criminally indicted and/or scheduled for temporary suspension hearings before their respective licensing boards.
With respect to the Texas State Board of Pharmacy, the TSBP has been setting an average of at least two pharmacies, along with the employed pharmacists, every month for temporary suspension hearings. A temporary suspension hearing is an extraordinary remedy designed to immediately remove from operation a pharmacy or pharmacist whose continued practice represents an ongoing threat to the public welfare. A temporary suspension bypasses the normal disciplinary procedure by allowing the Pharmacy Board to immediately remove a licensee from practice pending a final resolution by the Board.
Such hearings can be held with little or no notice to the licensee and are decided by a three-member panel of the Board rather than an independent administrative law judge. For a number of reasons, these hearings are almost always difficult for the licensee. As the Board panel is generally comprised of lay persons without a legal background, the rules of evidence are usually only loosely followed if at all. The short notice given to the pharmacist or pharmacy, oftentimes less than two weeks, permits little preparation time especially given it typically takes the licensee a few days even to locate an attorney. Most importantly, as the panel is comprised of Board members, the hearing’s decision-makers are usually very sympathetic and receptive to the arguments and evidence presented by Board Staff. A licensee often, and not without good reason, has the impression that the deck has been stacked against them.
If the Board panel does vote to temporarily suspend the licensee’s certificate, the only recourse is to appeal this order to District Court in Travis County. This is also an expensive and time-consuming process and the review provided is limited to determining whether or not the agency abused its discretion, not a full re-weighing of the merits. Moreover, in the interim, the pharmacist and/or pharmacy remains suspended.
My office recently represented two pharmacists, and their respective pharmacies, at a temporary suspension hearing before the Pharmacy Board. The allegations were that the pharmacist had over a period of time dispensed thousands of units of hydrocodone, alprazolam, and carisprodal which they know or should have known were non-therapeutic. The evidence presented by Board Staff at the temporary suspension hearing primarily consisted of a patient list of what they considered the thirty "top-offenders." Notably, the Board investigator, who has no medical background, had never even reviewed these individuals’ medical records prior to reaching this conclusion. My firm was able to present evidence and testimony that every one of these patients was receiving appropriate care for their illnesses which for most involved a large array of comorbities. In fact, one of the alleged "top-offenders" was the pharmacist’s own elderly mother who was receiving appropriate care from several specialists.
My firm was also able to present evidence that virtually every one of these patients had filled scripts at several other pharmacies, including big chains such as Walgreens, CVS, Wal-Mart, and HEB. Not surprisingly not one of the corporate pharmacies had been prosecuted or disciplined by the Texas Pharmacy Board for filling the exact same prescriptions for the same patients.
Currently, there is no sign that the Pharmacy Board intends to slow down its prosecution of independent Houston pharmacies for the non-therapeutic dispensing of pain medications. Unfortunately, oftentimes the Pharmacy Board appears to schedule licensees for temporary suspension hearing with little to no investigation as to whether they are actually inappropriately dispensing prescriptions, a trend which I believe the case discussed above amply illustrates. A temporary suspension hearing can be completely devastating to an independent pharmacist and make the difference between continuing as an ongoing concern and going out of business even if the licensee is later vindicated. Any Texas pharmacist or pharmacy who receives notice of a temporary suspension hearing should immediately contact an attorney familiar with the Texas Pharmacy Board and its processes.