Pubdate: Thu, 20 May 2004
Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Copyright: 2004 Los Angeles Times
Author: Ralph Vartabedian
Bookmark: (Oxycontin/Oxycodone)


The Operator Of A Shasta County Clinic Was Accused Of Improperly Prescribing
Painkillers And Of Medi-Cal Fraud In A Long-Running Case.

Ending a long-standing case that had gained national attention, a Redding
jury late Wednesday found Dr. Frank Fisher not guilty of improperly
prescribing painkillers and submitting fraudulent medical claims. The case
against Fisher, a Harvard University medical graduate who ran a
clinic for the rural poor in Shasta County, was among some federal and state
cases that had been described by government critics and medical groups as a
war against doctors who prescribe pain medications.

The state's investigation into Fisher began in 1996, and prosecutors
charged Fisher in 1999 with five murders involving his patients who
were being treated with painkillers, including Oxycontin. All of the
murder charges, along with other felony counts, were either withdrawn
or dismissed during trial.

State prosecutors mounted a second case against Fisher in 1998,
charging him with 99 felony counts of medical fraud in connection with
Medi-Cal claims and improper prescriptions of painkillers. All but
eight misdemeanor counts for improper billing were dismissed earlier
this year. "It is a profound relief," said Fisher, 50. "Prescribing
opioids for pain is the most dangerous thing a doctor can do,
particularly if he treats poor people." The California Department of
Justice, which handled the Fisher case, declined to comment Wednesday.
State and federal law enforcement agencies, led by the Drug
Enforcement Administration, have been increasing investigations and
prosecutions of doctors for improper use of opioids, including
Oxycontin, Vicodin and other opium-based painkillers. The Bush
administration doubled licensing fees on doctors and drug
manufacturers last year to help fund enforcement efforts, saying that
there was a national epidemic of drug abuse involving prescription
painkillers. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services
Administration estimates that more than 6 million Americans abuse
painkillers, more than those who use cocaine.

In late 2003, the Justice Department launched its highest profile case
in the campaign, charging Dr. William E. Hurwitz, a Stanford
University medical doctor who also holds a law degree, with improper
prescriptions of opioids. But medical groups and academic experts
rallied to Hurwitz's cause, as well as Fisher's. David Brushwood, a
national expert on painkiller abuse and a pharmacology professor at
the University of Florida, said the Hurwitz and Fisher prosecutions
were evidence of an unbalanced campaign by government agencies against

The American Academy of Family Physicians, a group of 94,000 local
doctors, has said that because of such prosecutions its members have
been increasingly fearful of writing prescriptions for patients in
serious pain. Fisher said he had lost everything in his legal battle,
including his medical clinic, and has lived with his parents in the
Bay Area for the last five years. He added that state prosecutors were
probably not through with him. A complaint is pending before the
California Medical Board over his medical license.
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