Jeri Hassman, a Tucson specialist in rehabilitation, was about to inject a patient with a pain-killing treatment in March when federal officials burst into her clinic, put her in handcuffs, and led her to jail. The Washington Post reports that Drug Enforcement Administration agents had placed Hassman and some patients under surveillance and had sent in undercover patients complaining of pain. They knew that large doses of morphine-based drugs like OxyContin and Lortab were showing up in the wrong hands. Hassman does not deny that she prescribed powerful drugs to many patients, but she insists she was following good medical practice. She saw herself as a compassionate and cutting-edge physician.
Hassman was charged with 362 counts of prescribing controlled drugs outside the normal practice of medicine. A single mother of two, Hassman, 47, faces a maximum penalty of 28 years in prison.
In recent years, the Post says, similar charges of illegally prescribing prescription narcotics, criminal conspiracy, racketeering, and even murder have been brought in dozens of states against doctors who treat chronic pain with prescription narcotics. At least two have been imprisoned, one committed suicide, several are awaiting sentencing, many are preparing for trial, and more have lost their licenses to practice and racked up accumulated huge legal bills.
DEA officials say that the relative handful of doctors have gotten into trouble with the law were prescribing drugs outside medical norms in a manner that amounted to trafficking. “There have been a number of very high-profile cases, and they have been a learning lesson to other physicians,” said Elizabeth Willis, chief of drug operations for the DEA Office of Diversion Control. “We think doctors are much more aware of appropriate guidelines for prescribing OxyContin now.”
Worried pain specialists say that although some doctors may be running narcotic “pill mills” and even selling prescriptions for narcotics, others who have been arrested appear to be responsible physicians. Their crime, it seems, is that they were supplying their chronic pain patients with sometimes large numbers of prescriptions for controlled but legal medications to treat their pain. The result, doctors say, is that the established medical use of opium-based drugs for pain is becoming criminalized by aggressive drug agents and zealous prosecutors.
In recent months a loose national movement has been formed to contest what some call the war being waged against pain doctors, pharmacists and suffering patients. A new group called the Pain Relief Network is organizing a march on Washington in April to protest the prosecutions and has hired an attorney to develop a legal strategy for appealing some of the convictions.