Former Shasta County physician Dr. Frank Fisher was acquitted Tuesday of charges that he had defrauded the state Medi-Cal system, ending a nightmarish six-year legal odyssey that began with his being charged as a murdering drug dealer. Prosecutors who once charged him with multiple counts of murder saw their last chance to nail Fisher for any criminal violations end in a Redding jury room with eight verdicts of innocent.
The 1999 arrest of Fisher, along with local pharmacy owners, Steven and Madeline Miller, marked the beginning of a sensational, if ill-begotten, prosecution. Shasta County prosecutors indicted Fisher for the deaths of several patients, bizarrely including those of one patient who was a passenger in a fatal traffic accident and of one person who was not a patient but had stolen drugs from Fisher's patient.
When Fisher and the Millers were arrested, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said they had joined in "a highly sophisticated drug-dealing operation" that caused deaths, got hundreds of people hooked on drugs, and cost Medi-Cal about $2 million. After national publicity and much ridicule, those charges were dropped in January 2003.
Fisher has resolutely maintained his innocence all along, arguing that he was singled out for prosecution because he was one of the few physicians brave enough to prescribe high doses of narcotic pain relievers. His Westwood Walk-In Clinic in Redding served hundreds of patients in pain, including many poor people whose costs were paid by Medi-Cal. That Medi-Cal was footing the bill had something to do with charges being filed, too. "Prescribing opioids for pain is the most dangerous thing a doctor can do, particularly if he treats poor people," Fisher said.
It was Medi-Cal fraud charges that were at the core of Fisher's latest legal case. Prosecutors originally charged Fisher with 99 counts of medical fraud regarding Medi-Cal claims and improper prescribing, but a state court judge dismissed all but eight misdemeanor counts of improper billing earlier this year. Now, he has been found innocent.
"Prosecutors reactivated this case when their other case was falling apart," said Fisher. "The charges are seven or eight years old, and they basically amounted to allegations I stole $150 from the Medi-Cal program. The jury didn't buy it, but between the county and the state, they've spent tens of thousands of dollars on this case – and that's just for expert witnesses."
Here's what one juror had to say to Dr. Fisher in an e-mail he received after the trial: "I was juror #1. Now that I am home and can read about you on the Internet, my heart really goes out to you for what you have been through. I was upset that the prosecutor wasted my time and the court's time on such a weak case. But now that I know what you have really been through I feel embarrassed and selfish to be thinking about my own time. I hope you can reopen your clinic some day and get back to practicing medicine, in your office or back room or anywhere you choose. Thanks for doing the job most doctors won't."
But Dr. Fisher can't get back to practicing medicine just yet. "Having failed to win any convictions, the attorney general is now going to prosecute me yet again on the same charges, this time before the state medical board. They will try to go after my license in an administrative venue this time. It seems to me that there is something slightly unconstitutional in the same prosecutorial agency trying a guy three times in a row on the same charges in different venues."
But despite the remaining hurdle, pain patient advocates and Fisher supporters are claiming victory and demanding accountability from the officials involved. "Dr. Fisher's case signals the pressing need for systemic governmental reform at the state and federal level while highlighting the dangers present when the law enforcement community seeks to impose its outdated views on cutting edge medical practice," said Siobhan Reynolds of the pain patient advocacy group the Pain Relief Network (http://www.painreliefnetwork.org).
"Over five years ago, Attorney General Bill Lockyer came to Redding and declared that by arresting and detaining Dr. Fisher, his prosecutors had shut down the biggest drug ring in the history of Northern California," Reynolds continued. "Apparently unaware that aggressive pain management had become a widely recognized imperative of mainstream medicine, Lockyer sought to characterize Dr. Fisher's practice as sinister. Most of Dr. Fisher's patients have been unable to obtain the quality of pain care they'd received from him, hundreds have deteriorated unnecessarily, and several have died as a result. At the time of Dr. Fisher's arrest, for example, twenty-five people who had been working, with Dr. Fisher's help, were forced to apply for full disability. In response, PRN intends to hold the State of California and participating counties and municipalities accountable for their wanton and reckless conduct."
Come back next week for an in-depth interview with Dr. Fisher on his ordeal and the broader issues of pain relief and law enforcement. In the meantime, visit his web site at http://www.drfisher.org online.
Visit http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/150/fishercase.shtml for our summer 2000 interview with Dr. Fisher and the Millers.