WHY IS THE DEA HOUNDING THIS DOCTOR?
BY JOHN TIERNEY
Jul. 17, 2005 -
On a cold morning last April, inA the shadow of Montana's Beartooth
Mountain range, five agents from the federal Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) walked into the office of Dr. Richard Nelson, a
For six hours, they combed through his records,
seizing 72 patient charts and confiscating his drug-dispensing
permit. The charge? None so far, but the assumption is that he is
suspected of improperly prescribing narcotic drugs. Despite a
distinguished professional record spanning more than four decades,
Nelson has had to spend $20,000 on lawyers, fearing that the
government will indict him if it turns out that one of his patients
has misused his medicine. "My practice is sunk," says the 73-year-old
physician, who specializes in chronic-pain treatment. "I can't even
write a prescription for Tylenol 3 if someone has a migraine."
The DEA, for its part, says it was acting on tips from "several
individuals in the community and pharmacies ... regarding suspicious
prescriptions," according to a spokesman, who declined to elaborate.
It's a messy situation. No one is denying that federal and state
officials, under pressure to combat a spike in pain-killer abuse, are
waging an escalating war on drugs that is spilling into the waiting
rooms of neighborhood doctors. Over the past six years, more than
5,600 physicians from Alaska to West Virginia have been investigated
on suspicion of "drug diversion." Some doctors allegedly prescribed
narcotics too freely, while others issued them to patients who turned
out to be dealers or addicts. More than 450 doctors have been
prosecuted on charges ranging from illegal prescribing and drug
trafficking to manslaughter and murder.
But in the government's new crackdown, legitimate physicians and
patients may be getting caught in the net.
"Fifty million Americans
are in severe pain from arthritis, back injuries, cancer and other
disabilities," says Dr. Scott Fishman, president of the American
Academy of Pain Medicine. "But the government is sending a message to
avoid prescribing strong pain-killers."
Ultimately, it may be the patients who get hurt most, because a
growing number of doctors, frightened of government scrutiny, are
avoiding the use of powerful narcotics such as OxyContin, Vicodin,
Percocet and Dilaudid.
"It is impossible to be sure that a patient is
not diverting any of his medication," says Dr. Thomas Stinson, a
Medford, Mass., anesthesiologist who is closing his 20-year practice
to new pain patients. "I fear I might be targeted."
In the past year, hundreds of sufferers have contacted the Baltimore-
based American Pain Foundation.
"They've gone to every physician
within hundreds of miles and can't get someone to prescribe to them,"
says executive director Will Rowe. In some cases, patients with high-
dosage prescriptions are turned away by drug stores, which are also
subject to DEA investigations.
"It's demeaning," says Mary Vargas, a
Maryland attorney whose spine was injured in an auto
accident. "Pharmacists tell me they don't have the medication, only
to recant and dispense it when I persist with the manager."