When Tucson pain specialist Dr. Jeri Hassman was indicted on 54 counts of prescribing opioid painkillers without a legitimate medical reason in March, federal prosecutors called her a Dr. Feelgood. When, after she refused to buckle under pressure, she was re-indicted in August, this time on a whopping 362 counts, they called her "a drug dealer with a pen."
Thursday, federal prosecutors accepted a plea bargain in which they dropped 358 charges, leaving Dr. Hassman to plead guilty only to four counts of failing to notify authorities that patients had admitted using other family members' prescription drugs. A case that began with a massive blaze of publicity courtesy of federal prosecutors has now ended with a whimper. There was no press release from the Arizona US Attorney's Office.
The plea bargain was hailed as victory by the Pain Relief Network (http://www.PainReliefNetwork.org), a national pain patient and doctor advocacy group that has called an April 19 march on Washington to focus national attention on the persecution of pain doctors and the chronic under-treatment of pain in this country. Still, PRN criticized the government for seeking guilty pleas to the four counts. "If we couldn't see it before," said PRN executive director Siobhan Reynolds, "I hope this deal makes it perfectly clear. The US government, by threat of criminal indictment, will hold physicians criminally responsible if they fail to act as law enforcement officers in their relationships with patients. Neither the Constitution nor the Congress ever gave the Department of Justice the power to do this and yet they use their sheer might to enforce their will."
The persecution of pain doctors has a chilling effect on pain treatment, Reynolds said.
"Doctors were already simply putting down their pens and telling people with high dose needs to look elsewhere for help. We are hearing daily about patient suicides from untreated pain. Now, I'm afraid, the situation will only deteriorate further."
PRN and the National Pain Patients Coalition are calling for a moratorium on drug war prosecutions of pain doctors and calling on Congress to rein in the DEA. "It's becoming increasingly clear that the DEA only goes after doctors who actually apply the science and give people in pain enough medication to resume their normal lives," said Reynolds. "This is an agency out of control."
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