Editor’s Note: The following article is being published as received from Richard “Red” Lawhern. National Pain Report extends our thanks to “Red”, and the Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain (ATIP) for all of your ongoing efforts.
By Richard A. Lawhern, Ph.D.
Because I write and speak widely on public health issues and the so-called “opioid crisis”, people frequently send me references to others’ work. One of the more startling articles I’ve seen lately was published November 20, 2018 in Pharmacy Times. It is titled “Should We Believe Patients With Pain?”
[link: https://www.pharmacytimes.com/publications/issue/2018/november2018/should-we-believe-patients-with-pain ]. The unlikely author is Commander John Burke, “a 40-year veteran of law enforcement, the past president of the National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, and the president and cofounder of the International Health Facility Diversion Association.”
The last paragraph of Commander Burke’s article is worth repeating here.
“Let’s get back to dealing with each person claiming to be in legitimate pain and believe them until we have solid evidence that they are scamming the system. If they are, then let’s pursue them through vigorous prosecution, but let’s not punish the majority of people receiving opioids who are legitimate patients with pain.”
This seems a remarkable insight from anyone in law enforcement — especially from one who has expressed this view in both Pain News Network, and Dr Lynn Webster’s video “The Painful Truth”. Recognizing Commander Burke’s unique perspective, I followed up by phone to ask several related questions. He has granted permission to publish my paraphrases of his answers here.
- “Are there any available source documents which establish widely accepted standards for what comprises “over-prescription?” as viewed by diversion investigators?”Burke’s answer was a resounding “NO”. Each State and Federal Agency that investigates doctors for potentially illegal or inappropriate opioid prescribing is pretty much making up their own standards as they go. Some make reference to the 2016 CDC Guidelines, but others do not.
- “Thousands of individual doctors have left pain management practice in recent years due to fears they may be investigated, sanctioned, and lose their licenses if they continue to treat patients with opioid pain relievers.. Are DEA and State authorities really pursuing the worst “bad actors”, or is something else going on?Burke’s answer: “Regulatory policy varies greatly between jurisdictions. But a hidden factor may be contributing significantly to the aggressiveness of Federal investigators. Federal Agencies may grant
financial bonuses to their in-house diversion investigators, based on the volume of fines collected from doctors, nurse practitioners, PAs and others whom they investigate.“No law enforcement agency at any level should be rewarded with monetary gain and/or promotion due to their work efforts or successes. This practice has always worried me with Federal investigators and is unheard of at the local or state levels of enforcement.”
Commander Burke’s revelation hit me like a thunder-clap. It would explain many of the complaints I have heard from doctors who have been “investigated” or prosecuted. It’s a well known principle that when we subsidize a behavior, we get more of it. Financial rewards to investigators must inevitably foster a “bounty hunter” mentality in some. It seems at least plausible that such bonuses might lead DEA regulators to focus on “low hanging fruit” among doctors who may not be able to defend themselves without being ruined financially. The practice is at the very least unethical. Arguably it can be corrupting.
I also inquired concerning a third issue:
- “I read complaints from doctors that they have been pursued on trumped-up grounds, coerced and denied appropriate legal defense by confiscation of their assets – which are then added to Agency funds for further actions against other doctors. Investigations are also commonly announced prominently, even before indictments are obtained – a step that seems calculated to destroy the doctor’s practice, regardless of legal outcomes. Some reports indicate that DEA or State authorities have threatened employees with prosecution if they do not confirm improper practices by the doctor. Do you believe such practices are common?”Burke’s answer: “I hear the same reports you do – and the irony is that such tactics are unnecessary. Lacking an accepted standard for over-prescribing, the gross volume of a doctor’s prescriptions or the dose levels prescribed to their patients can be poor indicators of professional misbehavior. Investigators should instead be looking into the totality of the case, which can include patient reports of poor doctor oversight, overdose-related hospital admissions, and patterns of overdose related deaths that may be linked to a “cocktail” of illicit prescribing. Especially important can be information gleaned from confidential informants – with independent verification – prior patients, and pharmacy information.”
No formal legal prosecution should ever proceed from the testimony of only one witness — even one as well informed as Commander John Burke. But it seems to me that it is high time for the US Senate Judiciary Committee to invite the testimony of others in open public hearings, concerning the practice of possible bounty hunting among Federal investigators.
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Author note: Richard A Lawhern, Ph.D. has 21 years experience as a technically trained non-physician advocate for people in pain. His articles and columns have been published by the National Institutes for Neurological Disorder and Stroke, the Association for Humanistic Psychology, Wikipedia, The Crime Report, The Journal of Medicine or the US College of Physicians, Practical Pain Management, Pain News Network, National Pain Report, IPain Living, and other media.