Pubdate: Thu, 20 May 2004
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 2004 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Carl T. Hall, Chronicle Science Writer
Bookmark: (Chronic Pain)


A Shasta County physician who once faced multiple counts of murder and
other felonies as part of an alleged drug-dealing conspiracy was found
not guilty late Tuesday of the remaining charges against him, ending a
high-profile case seen as a test of the ability of doctors to treat
patients with chronic pain.

Dr. Frank B. Fisher, 50, was acquitted of charges that he had
defrauded the state Medi-Cal system -- the only criminal charges that
hadn't already been dropped -- by a Shasta County Superior Court jury
after a two-week trial in Redding.

"I feel a profound sense of relief," Fisher said.

The Fisher case is one of the first and most ambitious prosecutions in
the country involving doctors accused of over-prescribing pain
medications. Pain-control advocates view such prosecutions as a
misguided war on legitimate drug use; authorities insist they have a
problem only with physicians who knowingly dispense potent narcotics
to people who don't really need them.

Authorities shut down Fisher's Westwood Walk-In Clinic in February
1999 and took him and the pharmacists, Stephen and Madeline Miller, to
jail in handcuffs.

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer said at the time that Fisher and
the Millers had joined in "a highly sophisticated drug-dealing
operation" that caused the overdose deaths of at least three people,
got hundreds of others hooked on narcotics and bilked Medi-Cal out of
about $2 million.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office declined to comment

But Fisher, an East Bay native who earned his medical degree at
Harvard University in 1981, never seemed to fit the mold of mass
murderer and dope peddler.

Fisher has maintained throughout his legal ordeal that he was singled
out by prosecutors because he was one of the few doctors brave enough
to prescribe high doses of narcotics, including the controversial
prescription painkiller OxyContin, to low-income pain sufferers
despite the scrutiny of drug-enforcement authorities.

Many of his patients in the Redding community have had trouble finding
another physician willing to write those prescriptions. Fisher says
this has had devastating consequences.

"The part of this story that's always missing is the suffering of the
patients I was treating," he said during a telephone interview
Wednesday. "For my patients, my arrest was an unmitigated disaster.
Many of them survived, but many of them not well. A lot of them look
like they've aged 20 years."

Fisher spent five months in jail. His bank account was seized, and he
wound up moving back in with his parents in El Cerrito to save rent.

Fisher says he is broke now but hopes to regain his property along
with his reputation and medical practice. However, he still faces a
complaint before the state Medical Board tied to the criminal
accusations, and for now he is unable to practice medicine.

He also faces civil suits brought by relatives of patients who died as
a result of his allegedly negligent prescribing practices.

Besides the three deaths with which he was initially charged, Fisher
was charged with two other murder counts after his arrest and
implicated in four additional deaths. But prosecutors came up with
little evidence to support the most serious charges.

In one case, for instance, Fisher was accused of causing the overdose
death of a woman who actually had died of injuries sustained while
riding in a vehicle that crashed. Another person succumbed to drugs
apparently purchased from street sources after Fisher refused to write
him a prescription.

A Shasta County judge dismissed two of the murder counts and
downgraded three others to involuntary manslaughter in July 1999.

Charges against the Millers were dropped last year, when prosecutors
also quietly withdrew their most serious remaining allegations against
Fisher. New felony charges were brought against Fisher, however,
alleging that he had filed fraudulent claims for Medi-Cal

Superior Court Judge Bradley Boeckman, who presided over the case in
Redding, reduced the remaining felonies to misdemeanors. Fisher claims
the alleged overbilling amounted to about $150.

Now, advocates of effective treatment for chronic pain are portraying
Fisher as a hero. He is one of about 100 doctors around the country
said to be victims of overzealous drug enforcement that has made it
more difficult for pain sufferers to obtain the medicine they need.

An organization of pain sufferers and advocates called the Pain Relief
Network issued a news release Wednesday condemning Lockyer for what
the group characterized as a historic blunder.

Siobhan Reynolds, executive director, said the group was pushing for a
state and congressional review of the Fisher case along with several
other prosecutions involving pain treatment. Reynolds said the
organization also intended to sue on behalf of patients denied
adequate pain relief.

People can suffer from chronic pain for a variety of reasons, whether
it's a failed back surgery, a car accident or some unknown cause.
Frequently, patients unable to get adequate treatment find themselves
in a downward spiral, unable to perform routine tasks, losing their
jobs and ending their marriages.
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