VOICE OF REASON VS. CALL TO ARMS: THE CALIF. MEDICAL/PHARMACY BOARDS’ CONFERENCE ON PRESCRIPTION DRUG ABUSE

Recently I attended a conference sponsored by the California Medical Board and Board of Pharmacy. I think I was the only criminal defense lawyer in the room. The two-day event was entitled, “Joint Forum to Promote Appropriate Prescribing and Dispensing,” and was supposed to help healthcare providers and pharmacists know the law of controlled substance prescriptions, so they could follow the law and care for patients better. But that didn’t happen. Instead, during a Q and A with high-ranking Board officials on a panel, one attendee put it perfectly: The Boards are in “punitive” mode, “waiting to pounce” on prescribers and providers. That really was the unmistakable and highly regrettable message of the conference. In this post and several to follow, I’ll explain.

The voice of reason was heard briefly in the conference’s opening session. It belonged to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, better known as the Drug Czar. The speaker from the Office listed ways to screen for potential abuse, advice for effective patient monitoring, relevant CME, and other tools doctors could use in caring for patients while helping to curb abuse.

The speaker’s final suggestion was the most interesting, to me: He advised providers to regularly prescribe naloxone, the “anti-overdose” drug that has helped save the lives of accidental opiate overdose patients around the country. Great idea! But there’s also a downside, which I pointed out to the speaker: In today’s aggressive enforcement environment, the DEA and Medical Board might view writing for naloxone as prima facie evidence of excessive opioid prescribing. After all, if a doctor felt a patient was at risk of overdosing, why did the doctor write the opioid scrip at all? And why did a pharmacist fill it? What I fear, and what the official acknowledged could be a real issue, is that a provider’s or pharmacist’s act of patient protection could be used against them in a federal or state criminal investigation. That, to put it technically, would be totally uncool. And unfair. And inadvisable as policy and practice.

When the Drug Czar’s office had concluded its remarks, the DEA assumed the microphone. With that transition, the voice of reason gave way to a one-sided call to arms against the very professions represented by the conference’s attendees. More on this in the next post.

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