PAINKILLER LAW BLOG POST: Your Friendly Neighborhood DEA Snitch

A recent story out of the Southeast caught my eye. A local pain management doctor has been cut off by local pharmacies, or more precisely, the patients of that doctor have been cut off because local pharmacies are refusing to fill pain scrips written by that doctor. In these instances, which I’ve seen some of my own doctor-clients’ experience, the pharmacies’ actions range from altruistic and concerned, to cowardly and hasty disassociation from a provider who may or may not have done anything wrong.

The doctor who was the subject of the news story does, admittedly, write many, many pain prescriptions, and perhaps he does deserve a close second look by pharmacists. Pharmacists, after all, have a very important job, not only to fill a prescription correctly and consider drug interactions, appropriate dosage, and medical necessity, but they also have a responsibility under federal law to double-check the legitimacy of the prescription to begin with. This is especially true when it comes to pain prescriptions, and so says the DEA. Loudly, in fact. So loudly does the DEA make this pronouncement to pharmacists, that many times I have seen pharmacists inform on doctors just to get the DEA off the pharmacy’s back.

While a pharmacist can always say, perhaps legitimately, that he or she was righteously concerned about the sheer volume of pain scrips coming out of a certain doctor’s office, that same pharmacist might be getting visits from DEA agents. The pharmacist knows from the get-go that “naming names” is often a good way to get the DEA to redirect its focus. So pharmacists name names. And then other pharmacists in the area get word, and cut off the same doctor or the doctor’s patients. A type of local hysteria takes over, and pretty soon, there are a lot of pain patients finding pharmacy counters off limits to them.

What happens to these patients? An excerpt from the recent news story gives you an idea:

“I didn’t have a real good feeling about cutting people off cold turkey, but in some cases it was warranted,” a local pharmacist said.

The pharmacist interviewed is admitting that an abrupt cut-off of one’s prescription drug dosage can force people to go “cold turkey,” without tapering off of powerful medication on which the patient may have become physically dependent or developed a tolerance. What does it mean when there’s no tapering off? It means a patient risks going into withdrawal, which can be very dangerous and which subjects innocent people to great physical and psychological agony.

According to prescribing and pharmacy practice guidelines, doctors and pharmacists SHOULD NOT subject patients to abrupt, 100% cut-off from opioid dosage, even if a patient is exhibiting signs of misuse. Medication is to be titrated down, patients provided with enough medication for a reasonable time to allow them to find another provider, or be referred to substance abuse treatment programs if necessary, and patients are NOT to be placed at unnecessary risk of going into withdrawal.

And when the DEA is breathing down your neck, Mr. Pharmacist? It’s OK to kick patients to the curb then? No, it’s not. The pharmacist interviewed in the story is actually violating prescribing guidelines and probably running afoul of rules of professional conduct. He is certainly not placing patient safety ahead of his own survival. And without doubt, he is not alone in his self-serving behavior. Unfortunately, as is often the case, people who otherwise act with dignity and compassion in their professional lives fail to show courage in the face of government intimidation. It’s easier to name names.

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