Dr. Jeri Hassman sentenced to probation
Aug 18, 2004 -
Jeri Hassman, M.D., a pain management physician entrapped by an undercover agent posing as a patient, was sentenced in federal court in
Tucson, AZ, on August 16.
After an exhaustive investigation, the government filed hundreds of counts against Dr. Hassman concerning a small number of patients, with each prescription constituting a separate count. If convicted on just a single count, Dr. Hassman could have been
imprisoned for many decades.
A single mother with two children at home, she had little choice but to be pragmatic. The overall acquittal rate of defendants charged in
federal court is less than 1%. Even if one wins, the process destroys the defendants and other charges can still be brought. Dr. Hassman felt
compelled to plead guilty to four counts of being an accessory after the fact of several patients' allegedly unlawful possession of controlled
At sentencing, the Judge conceded that Dr. Hassman has been punished enough by loss of professional standing and most of her practice, as well as the destitution resulting from her enormous legal expenses. But he insisted that a lenient sentence might be an inadequate deterrent to the rest of the medical community. Although some patients do need and benefit from the prescription of opioids, he thought that problem could be replaced by the worse scourge of addiction. Under terms of the plea
agreement, he had the power to sentence her to up to 6 months in prison.
The Judge was assured that physicians, as a result of Dr. Hassman's prosecution, have become much more wary of potential patient misuse of drugs. The Arizona Medical Board is receiving inquiries about the physicians' legal responsibility to report patients to law enforcement if they become aware of infractions such as borrowing prescriptions
intended for a friend or relative. Bates Butler, Dr. Hassman's attorney, said he felt that a deterrent effect had been achieved but that sending Dr. Hassman to prison would result in a chilling effect on medical practice.
Dr. Hassman made a compelling statement to court that illustrated how she has already suffered. She pleaded for a chance to continue practicing for the benefit of her patients, including the uninsured. The government, nevertheless, argued for five years probation, 500 hours of community service, and a fine.
The Judge decided to impose two years of probation, plus 100 hours of community service, 50 in a substance abuse center and 50 serving nonpaying patients in her office. Dr. Hassman may reapply for her DEA certification one year after the date of the plea agreement. Her conviction is not for drug dealing; thus, she will not be excluded from
Medicare. However, the Judge conditioned the sentence upon this disconcerting requirement: Dr. Hassman must publish in a medical journal
an exemplary letter describing the devastating consequences of her own behavior and the righteous prosecution by government, so that others may
be influenced. As these prosecutions continue, who will be able to stand up for chronic pain patients?
Stop government trial lawyers' misconduct: join the Coalition Against Prosecutorial Abuse.
Prosecutions of doctors prescribing pain management.
The effect of prosecutions on patients. Interpretation of aberrant drug-related behaviors by Frank Fisher,
M.D., Journal of American Physicians and Surgeons, Spring 2004.
Dr. Hassman rolled over for the government. She had no choice - as the government has millions to spend, dragging her case out for a decade if they wish. She has only her self and her personal resources.
This decision is horrifically wrong. Some may even see it as outrageous. Must phsyicians now be police - searching for patients with addictive disorders they can turn over to law engforcement? Doesn't this signal an end to patient-physician confidentiality and mutual trust?
Read what she actually pleaded guilty to. It is chilling to the bone. And what does this Judge (and the government)think they are accomplishing? Does he really believe that drug abuse is caused by doctors, and by terrifying doctors it will go away? In fact, all he has accomplished is further frightening physicians, resulting in even less care to deserving patients, and driving more people to the $500 Billion dollar a year illegal drug market. Good work Judge; good work Government.
J.S. Hochman MD
INDICTED PAIN DOC ATTACKS CHARGES(Dr. Hassmans' full statement below)
ANNE T. DENOGEAN
June 27, 2003
She calls on federal law enforcers instead to work with doctors to keep narcotic prescription drugs out of the hands of addicts and abusers.
A Tucson doctor indicted in March on federal charges of overprescribing narcotic painkillers says the Drug Enforcement Administration should ease up on physicians doing their best to help Americans who live with debilitating pain.
It's important to prevent opioid drugs from getting into the hands of those who abuse them, acknowledged Dr. Jeri Hassman. But, she said at a news conference yesterday, "You cannot ignore there are millions of people who suffer severe and chronic pain."
Instead of targeting doctors, the DEA should work with them to identify "drug-seeking" and "doctor-shopping" patients, she said.
Tony Ryan, spokesman for the DEA in Tucson, said the agency would not comment on an open investigation.
Hassman, a pain-management specialist, faces 66 charges alleging she prescribed painkillers to six patients without a legitimate medical reason. The drugs included morphine, methadone, Vicodin and OxyContin, schedule II narcotics that have addictive properties and can be abused.
Hassman also is charged with scheming to defraud TRICARE, a managed health-care program for retired members of the U.S. military and their dependents.
Yesterday's news conference was organized by the Association of American Physicians & Surgeons, a professional association headed by Dr. Jane Orient of Tucson that is supporting Hassman.
Among others who attended to support Hassman were the immediate past president of the Arizona Medical Association, Dr. Richard Dale; another Tucson pain-management specialist who will be an expert witness for Hassman, Dr. Jennifer Schneider; and several other doctors.
"She may be very empathetic or even naive, but I think she took good care of her patients," Dale said.
About a dozen patients in attendance passionately defended Hassman, describing her as caring and conscientious.
Don Hayden, 48, said his chronic pain from a shattered ankle and a subsequent infection was so great that he was bedridden most of the time and contemplated suicide. Three years ago, he found Hassman.
"She prescribed the proper pain medication to make me a functioning member of this society," Hayden said.
Several of the patients complained they've had difficulty getting the medications they need from other doctors since Hassman's certificate to prescribe controlled substances was suspended.
Orient said her association got behind Hassman because it believes the DEA has turned the war on drugs "into a war on doctors." She provided a list of 32 doctors from around the country who have been indicted or convicted on charges related to their prescribing of pain medications.
Some victims of chronic pain need prescription narcotic painkillers for the long term to be able to function. But Orient said doctors all over, including her colleagues in Tucson, are becoming more reluctant to prescribe the painkillers, because of fear of prosecution.
"If this continues, if you or a loved one develops chronic pain, you may not be able to find anyone who is willing to prescribe these lifesaving medications for you," she said.
Orient and Hassman said the DEA could work cooperatively with doctors to prevent people who abuse prescription drugs or sell them on the street from obtaining those drugs. Law enforcement should set up a notification process to advise physicians of suspicious behavior by patients, such as using more than one pharmacy or having contact with known dealers or addicts, they suggested.
Doctors could provide training on cutting-edge treatments so law enforcement better understands changing attitudes in medicine toward pain treatment, they said. What wasn't considered appropriate a few years ago in terms of volume and duration of pain-drug use has changed.
They also said there should be joint reviews of potential cases against doctors before charges are filed so that doctors aren't ruined by the charges.
Hassman said she has spent more than $100,000 defending herself and expects the final cost to be about $500,000. She said her employees have taken pay cuts to keep her practice going.
She is being investigated by the Arizona Medical Board, and two malpractice suits were filed against her after the indictment. She said she is confident the malpractice suits will be resolved in her favor.
(Dr. Hassmans' Statement below)
Press Statement of Jeri Hassman, M.D.
June 26, 2003
Our nation needs to control the distribution of prescription medications, and keep these powerful and potentially dangerous prescription drugs out of the hands of the drug abusers and those who illegally sell them.
At the same time, we cannot ignore that there are millions of people who suffer with severe and chronic pain every day, and who need these very same prescription medications in order to live a normal life and to perform even the most basic functions. As Newsweek reported on May 19, "Pain is the Number 1 reason Americans visit their doctors… and the annual cost, including treatment and lost workdays, now hovers at $100 billion dollars in the United States."
Unfortunately, the DEA and the doctors who treat chronic pain are not working collaboratively to meet these important national healthcare interests. Instead an antagonistic relationship has developed between the DEA and doctors, where the DEA appears to think that doctors are over-prescribing pain medication and doctors are trying in good faith to care for their patients under the ever- growing fear of being accused of aiding in unlawful drug diversion.
The DEA and doctors need to work TOGETHER. There needs to be open COMMUNICATION and 100% COOPERATION between these two groups.
Together, we CAN solve the problem of the unlawful diversion of drugs.
If the DEA shared information about drug abusers with doctors, doctors and legitimate chronic pain patients would immediately benefit. Instead of expending medical resources on those who are deceiving the healthcare system, doctors could then spend all their time with genuine chronic pain patients the way a doctor's time should be spent:
- Finding the best treatment possible for these patients,
- Discussing treatment options with these patients, and
- Rendering the care these patients need and addressing their concerns.
Instead of working collaboratively with doctors, the DEA treats doctors, not the drug abuser, as the cause of the drug diversion problem. As a result, the DEA's targeting of doctors is having a chilling effect on the treatment of chronic pain patients and threatens to undermine the standard of care for chronic pain patients. Doctors can't effectively treat chronic pain patients if they live in fear that they will be accused of over-prescribing pain medication by the federal government. It is not hard to see that it is the chronic pain patients who will suffer. They will not be able to obtain the treatment they so need and deserve.
Moreover, with the substantial threat of government prosecution of doctors, doctors will have no choice but to distrust their patients and require them to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that they have legitimate pain before they will render the necessary and beneficial pain treatment. Again, it is the legitimate chronic pain patient who is made to suffer.
If, instead, doctors and the DEA worked together, doctors and the DEA could do their jobs and the integrity of our entire healthcare system would be enhanced.
Wouldn't it be best if doctors could spend their time doing what doctors do best -- treating patients, helping patients and decreasing pain and suffering?
And wouldn't it be best if the DEA focused on what they can do best -- finding those that use important drugs for the wrong reasons, dealing with those who intentionally misuse the drugs and break the law, and then communicating with and helping doctors identify those wrongdoers?
The prosecution of doctors who are trying to do their best for their patients must end. Doctors don't want drugs to go into the wrong hands. By their tactics the DEA has put doctors in the unusual predicament of having to treat any patient who complains of pain as if he or she is NOT telling the truth. This is backwards. Instead, the DEA should be sharing information with doctors so we don't unwittingly help a wrongdoer.
Doctors are trained to BELIEVE their patients.
Doctors are trained to help their patients.
Doctors are trained to relieve pain and suffering.
Doctors are NOT trained to be policemen.
Doctors are NOT trained to mistrust their patients.
Doctors are NOT trained to "catch" their patients in a lie.
There needs to be OPEN COMMUNICATION, wholehearted COOPERATION and mutual respect between the agents of the DEA and the doctors who have stepped forward to treat patients with chronic pain.
Jeri B. Hassman, M.D.
Board Certified Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Certified Independent Medical Examiner