Given the current aggressive regulatory climate surrounding the treatment of chronic pain, it is worthwhile to look back and understand how the applicable law developed prior to the Legislature’s empowerment of the Texas Medical Board to oversee registered pain clinics in 2011. This prior law, including the Intractable Pain Treatment Act, was designed to safeguard physicians who treat chronic pain while remaining within the standard of care. It has been my experience as an attorney representing numerous physicians, mid-level providers, and pharmacies, that this prior law has largely been either forgotten or eroded to the point it no longer provides real protection to medical professionals.

The Intractable Pain Treatment Act (IPTA),  separate from the Medical Practice Act, is codified at Chapter 107, Texas Occupation Code, and was intended to provide physicians with a safe harbor in prescribing controlled substances and dangerous drugs to treat pain. In this post we provide a background of this Act and its current relevance, or lack thereof, in the practice of medicine. 

The Intractable Pain Treatment Act was passed in 1989 to deal with the problem that physicians were being disciplined by the Texas Medical Board because the Board refused to distinguish habitual users of narcotic drugs from patients with genuine medical needs. Prior to the passage of the IPTA, the Medical Practice Act allowed the Texas Medical Board, known at that time as the Texas Board of Medical Examiners, to discipline physicians for prescribing controlled substances or dangerous drugs to a person "known to be habitual users of narcotic drugs, controlled substances, or dangerous drugs or to a person who the physician should have known was a habitual user of the drugs." This phrasing of the Medical Practice Act made patients taking opioids to alleviate genuine suffering "habitual users." Accordingly, physicians prescribing pain medication to cancer patients were subject to disciplinary action by the Board. Such was the effect that physicians refused to prescribe these therapeutic drugs and hospitals refused to let physicians prescribe them on the premises. 

The Intractable Pain Act of 1989 sought to rectify this basic problem by protecting physicians from Texas Medical Board discipline if they prescribed the medication for "intractable pain."   Intractable pain is defined as pain the cause of which cannot be removed, treated, or cured. The IPTA also prohibited hospitals from restricting credentialed physicians from prescribing pain medications for intractable pain. 

In 1993 the Legislature modified the Medical Practice Act to prohibit doctors from prescribing to a person who was a known "abuser" of controlled medications. In 1996 the Legislature amended the Intractable Pain Act to allow physicians to prescribe controlled medication even to such abusers as long as the medication was strictly for the management of their diagnosed pain which the physician had a duty to monitor. The physician was also required to document the understanding between the doctor and the patient and to consult with an addiction specialist as appropriate. These restrictions were only required when dealing with patients who were drug abusers or had a history of drug abuse. 

In its final form the IPTA was meant to provide a safe harbor for Texas doctors who treated long-term pain provided the controlled medications they prescribed were actually for an underlying pain condition. This safe harbor protects physicians who treat known drug abusers for intractable pain provided they monitor the patient and consult with the appropriate mental health expert. Yet the protections of the safe harbor are slight; by the Act’s own terms, the Texas Medical Board can still discipline physicians if they prescribe non-therapeutically or prescribe in a manner inconsistent with the public welfare.  

The safe harbor provision provided by the Intractable Pain Treatment Act has been recognized, albeit modified, by the Board in its pain management rules codified at Chapter 170, Title 22 Texas Administrative Code. The rules recognize that pain treatment is a vital and integral part of the practice of medicine and that doctors should be able to treat pain using sound clinical judgment without the fear of disciplinary action from the Texas Medical Board. Yet, the rules go on to list several actions that should be involved in the treatment of chronic pain including the formulation of a pain management contract requiring random drug screening.

From the rules it is apparent that whereas the Intractable Pain Treatment Act required heightened monitoring and more rigorous documentation merely for known drug abusers, the Board’s most recent rules make that standard applicable to all long-term pain management patients. While the rules do call themselves "guidelines" it should be noted that the Texas Medical Board will allow deviation from the guidelines only if the physician’s rational for treatment indicates sound clinical judgment documented in the medical records.


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As we reported earlier this month, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) along with several state agencies, including the Texas Medical Board (TMB) and Texas State Board of Pharmacy (TSBP), has been increasingly active in Houston over the past few months. More than ever before, the joint state and federal taskforce has taken a scorched earth

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

As the Texas physician shortage continues, more and more physicians from foreign countries are coming to the state to meet the shortfall. This blog post describes how the Texas Medical Board and legislature have limited the geographic locations in which foreign physicians can practice. This post also discusses the constitutional implications of the law given that it allows the Board to discriminate against foreign physicians.

In 2011, the Texas legislature amended the Medical Practice Act to require that foreign physicians who were neither US citizens nor permanent residents (green card holders) work in a Medically Underserved Area for three years, or promise to so work, in order to qualify for a Texas medical license. The law does not affect current license-holders, physicians who have practiced at least one year prior to September 1, 2012 on a Texas Physician-in-Training permit, or physicians who submitted their applications for full licensure prior to September 1, 2012. Other foreign physicians not subject to one of the foregoing exceptions are subject to the new law.

The main effect of this law is to force physicians in the United States on an H-1B work visa to practice for three years in a Medically Underserved Area. Medically Underserved Areas (MUAs) are designated by the United States Department of Health and Human Services and administered in Texas by the Texas Department of State Health Services. MUAs are areas which suffer from a significant shortage of personal health services and are determined according to a formula weighing a geographic location’s poverty and infant mortality rates, the percentage of elderly population, and the ratio of primary care physicians. Many rural counties in Texas have been designated as a MUA as have certain disadvantaged areas in large cities such as San Antonio.

The law is primarily designed to impose the same rules on a foreign physician coming to Texas under a H-1B visa as those applicable to an individual coming to Texas pursuant to a J-1 visa. Foreign physicians coming to the United States to do their residencies usually enter on either a J-1 or an H-1B work visa. Under the federal laws, the J-1 visa allows a physician to do his residency, but at the end of his stipulated time he must return to his country of citizenship and stay there for two years. He is not eligible to seek green card status. However, if the physician elects to work in a MUA, they can receive a waiver and have their status adjusted to H-1B status without having to leave the US and face the 2-year residence abroad requirement. The physician is also then allowed to apply for a green card.

Under federal law, a physician who initially enters on an H-1B does not have to face these burdens. They are eligible to petition for a green card without a break in their stay and employment in the United States. Nor does such a physician have to obtain a waiver by working in a MUA. 

The new Texas law forces a H-1B physician to work in a MUA just as her J-1 counterpart would by making practicing in such an area a mandatory requirement for licensure. It is certainly interesting that the Texas Medical Board is now effectively pursuing immigration policy and determining where a foreign physician can geographically work. There is no claim being made that the H-1B physicians are inferior and so demand more scrutiny than American citizens. In fact a contrary inference may be drawn since it is mandated that the H-1B physician provide care for some of the most medically vulnerable populations in Texas. Moreover, most H-1B foreign physicians will have completed a residency program in Texas. Thus, the Texas law is not in place to protect the public from foreign physicians. The law is merely a way of ensuring that H-1B physicians take jobs in areas no American physician wants to go to—the MUA.

It is also likely possible this new law would have an overall negative impact on the number of new physicians coming to Texas to practice by discouraging the immigration of foreign doctors. If the only way for a foreign physician to practice in Texas is to do so in a MUA (an area which by definition has, for whatever reason, not proven attractive to Texas physicians), they may very likely simply go to another state following their residency in Texas. In effect, Texas health resources spent training new physicians will ultimately go to benefit other states.

It is also important to keep in mind that a foreign physician in the country on a H-1B visa cannot open their own practice, even in a MUA. They can only work for a sponsoring employer. Accordingly, foreign physicians are being forced to find a pre-existing physician practice in an area which is designated a MUA precisely because there is already severe shortage of physicians. It is unclear how areas which are already struggling to economically support a basic health care structure are going to integrate an influx of foreign physicians.


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As tuition at US medical schools continues to increase at an astronomical rate, more and more aspiring doctors are looking abroad, particularly to the Caribbean, to pursue their medical degrees.  Moreover, due to the shortage of physicians in the United States the country needs more physicians from other countries.   Both sets of medical graduates of foreign medical schools face challenges when they seek licensure in the United States. This post particularly describes the additional burdens faced by graduates of foreign medical schools as they seek licensure in Texas. 

The Texas Medical Board regulates the practice of medicine in the State of Texas. This includes determining licensure requirements for medical school graduates. Part of this determination requires verifying that the graduate met certain minimum requirements during the course of their medical education. While such a verification for graduates of United States medical schools are relatively easy—the Board relies on the Liaison Committee on Medical Education and American Osteopathic Association Bureau of Professional Education to approve those schools—the verification of foreign medical schools is a much more cumbersome process. It should be noted that the process described here is independent of citizenship status—i.e. the vetting process for foreign medical schools is the same regardless of whether the foreign medical school graduate is a United States citizen or a citizen of another country.  

The verification process first begins with a degree equivalency determination. The foreign medical graduate (FMG) must get their credentials evaluated by the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG), a non-profit organization that deals with determining the equivalency of foreign medical degrees. ECFMG will weigh the foreign transcript and grades and convert the coursework into an equivalent for a US school. If ECFMG determines that the degree received is equivalent to a US Medical degree then it will award the FMG a certificate saying so. ECFMG may find that a foreign medical degree is equivalent to a US medical degree even if that degree is a baccalaureate one. Obtaining a certificate from ECFMG is also required before the foreign medical school graduate may sit for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), which is the standard medical licensing examination in the United States. 

However, a certificate from the ECFMG is only a starting point for the foreign medical graduate. The Texas Medical Board further requires that the foreign medical graduate show that the school itself rather than just the coursework is substantially equivalent to a Texas medical school. Such a determination requires documentation of:

  • a Foreign Educational Credentials Evaluation from the Office of International Education Services of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) or an International Credential Evaluation from the Foreign Credential Service of America (FCSA), or another similar entity as approved by the board;
  • a board questionnaire, to be completed by the medical school and returned directly to the board;
  • a copy of the medical school’s catalog;
  • verification from the country’s educational agency confirming the validity of school and licensure of applicant;
  • proof of written agreements between the medical school and all hospitals that are not located in the same country as the medical school where medical education was obtained;
  • proof that the faculty members of the medical school had written contracts with the school if they taught a course outside the country where the medical school was located;
  • proof that the medical education courses taught in the United States complied with the higher education laws of the state in which the courses were taught;
  • proof that the faculty members of the medical school who taught courses in the United States were on the faculty of the program of graduate medical education when the courses were taught; and
  • proof that all education completed in the United States or Canada was while the applicant was enrolled as a visiting student as evidenced by a letter of verification from the U.S. or Canadian medical school.


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In 2010, the Texas Legislature created the Texas Physician Health Program (PHP), effectively shifting the oversight of licensed Texas physicians with substance abuse disorders and mental illness from the Texas Medical Board to a program uniquely tailored to monitor those issues. Responsible in part for the success of this idea is the sentiment that physicians generally

Since the summer of 2011, the Texas Medical Board has been considering adopting a new rule applicable to non-surgical, cosmetic procedures such as Botox or dermal filler injections. The proposal would create new standards and requirements applicable to physicians who perform or delegate the performance of such procedures. Currently, this area is covered by

Physicians that treat chronic pain patients or prescribe a large volume of narcotic pain medications ought to be increasingly aware of the pressure that is being exerted by the Texas Medical Board, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and their multi-agency task force. We have drawn attention to the crackdown on alleged “pill mills” and alleged

There has been a recent and rapid rise in the number of physicians being prosecuted for the alleged non-therapeutic prescribing of controlled substances under both state and federal law.  In the last week alone I have received numerous phone calls from a variety of medical and osteopathic doctors who had been arrested and/or indicted by the federal government or a local law enforcement branch after a joint investigation by a task force of state and federal agencies such as the Texas Medical Board (TMB), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a local sheriff’s and/or police office and the State Board of Pharmacy. These individuals are being charged by prosecuting attorneys in United States District Court (Federal Court) with crimes under the Federal Controlled Substances Act or in State Court for violations of the Health and Safety Code and the Medical Practice Act. In most cases the basic charge is the delivery of a prescription (to a patient and within the context of the physician’s medical practice) for a controlled substance without a valid therapeutic purpose. Many of the physicians I spoke with questioned why and how the government can substitute its’ clinical judgment for the physicians.  Essentially this amounts to a physician being prosecuted and jailed for a standard of care based decision that was once a purely civil or administrative inquiry. My law practice has been handling these cases for years and over the last year the number of inquiries to our attorneys has increased tenfold suggesting the marked rise in government prosecutions is very real. 

Oftentimes the Government relies on the sheer number of prescriptions written or the types / combinations of medications prescribed to make its’ case. It then utilizes experts to opine that a reasonable physician would not prescribe this combination of medications to this many patients and thus the treatment of patient X was non-therapeutic. This is a questionable way to go about proving a case, but it does not stop the Government from doing its investigation, arresting the doctor, forcing the surrender of their DEA issued controlled substances registration, initiating the inevitable discipline and loss of the physician’s medical license and the consequent destruction of their medical practice pending prosecution(s).  While violations of the administrative rules surrounding the handling and use of prescriptive authority carry civil and administrative monetary provisions, violations of a state or federal statute mean confinement upon conviction and the inevitable loss of the physician’s career in medicine. For many physicians the result has been the very conservative treatment of patients and arguably the under treatment of both acute and chronic pain. I have thankfully yet to see the government pursue a case that involved palliative care.


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The Texas Medical Board has a new method of resolving outstanding investigations, courtesy of the 2011 legislative session- the Remedial Plan. If you are a physician with an investigation pending before the Medical Board, you may very well encounter the Remedial Plan. They are being offered frequently. In some cases that will be good news , but contrary to how Board staff may sell it, the Remedial Plan is not suited for everyone. 

Let me give an overview of the Remedial Plan. The Board terms the Remedial Plan as a non-disciplinary order. It cannot be offered in instances where the complaint concerns a patient death, commission of a felony, or an instance where a physician becomes sexually, financially, or personally involved with a patient in an inappropriate manner. The Remedial Plan also cannot assess an administrative penalty, or revoke, suspend, limit or restrict a person’s license. Typically the Remedial Plans include continuing education and/or the requirement to take the Jurisprudence Exam. They also could include non-restrictive terms like a physician chart monitor, and they virtually always carry a $500 administration fee.

Despite the limitations on when a Remedial Plan can be offered, there are still many circumstances that qualify, and this is borne out in how frequently Board disciplinary panels are offering them. They are being offered before Informal Settlement Conferences (ISC) in an attempt to forgo the need to hold a hearing. They are also being offered at ISC’s in lieu of other discipline. This all sounds like good news. It is a “non-disciplinary” order after all. However, one corresponding trend that does concern me, as an attorney that is now encountering these Remedial Plans quite frequently, is that Panels are offering Remedial Plans in circumstances where they otherwise would have dismissed the case entirely. The Board Panels feel too comfortable offering the Remedial Plan because it is “non-disciplinary.” It seems the Board Panel can justify offering a Remedial Plan in instances where they could not otherwise justify disciplinary action. 


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