May 14, 2018 10:23 PM
Thousands of doctors in Minnesota are breaking a law that is supposed to make it more difficult to obtain large amounts of painkillers—and state regulators are doing little to enforce that law in the middle of an opioid epidemic, according to a 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation.
The law required all medical professionals who have the ability to prescribe narcotics to create an account with the state's Prescription Monitoring Program by last July. It applies to anyone registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The monitoring program allows doctors and pharmacists to check a patient's history to see, for instance, whether another doctor recently prescribed a highly addictive drug.
5 EYEWITNESS NEWS analyzed the most recent DEA data and cross-checked it with the state monitoring program. The findings show more than 5,000 doctors, dentists, pharmacists and other medical professionals have broken the law.
'Matter of Life or Death'
"I think it's egregious," Jessica Hultgren said about the number of doctors who failed to sign up for the monitoring program. "It is truly a matter of life or death," she added.
Hultgren's husband, Chris, died of an opioid overdose in August 2016 at the age of 40. He became hooked on Oxycodone three years earlier after suffering a head injury.
"There were certainly red flags for me at the time," Jessica said about her husband's addiction.
He was able to obtain powerful painkillers from multiple doctors at multiple clinics, according to medical records later obtained by his wife.
"It took me a very long time to sort of put the pieces together," Jessica said.
Those records show her husband obtained 120 pills of Oxycodone over a two-day period in April 2016 – four months before his death.
At the time, doctors were not required to sign up for the monitoring program that could have flagged such prescriptions.
Policing the Doctors
The law change that went into effect last summer does not mandate that doctors use the system, but requires them to create an account in case they encounter a patient who they suspect is doctor shopping for opioids.
"I think the intent of the law is you should register a (Prescription Monitoring Program) account and use it," said Ruth Martinez, Executive Director of the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice, one of the regulatory boards tasked with enforcing the new law.
However, Martinez said the board does not know which doctors are breaking the law because it does not have the capacity to obtain and maintain DEA registrations.
That information was obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and compiled in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet.
Asked why the board is unable to access or track that same information, Martinez responded, "We simply don't."
In contrast, the Board of Dentistry, after being contacted by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS, recently started working with the DEA to obtain the necessary information.
"It is a continued effort and our goal is to increase sign-ups and compliance," Executive Director Bridgett Anderson said.
Yet, Martinez, who is in charge of the largest regulatory board, said she will not conduct a "fishing expedition."
"We are a complaint-driven process," she said. "And frankly, if we were going on a fishing expedition all of the time then we wouldn't be able to complete any of the rest of the important work that we have to do as a board."
Martinez added that the board encourages doctors to create an account when they renew their medical license by including a link to the monitoring program on the online application. But she acknowledged that doctors can still renew their license even when they are violating the law.
"We aren't holding up a renewal because someone may or may not have an account registered," she said.
That surprised Rep. Dave Baker (R-Willmar) who said the board had assured lawmakers that doctors would not be allowed to obtain or renew a license if they did not sign up for the monitoring program.
"You aren't going to get your license if you don't sign up again….that's what was told to us by the Board of Medical Practice," Rep. Baker said. "The bill should not be a waste of our time."
Rep. Dave Baker participated in a panel discussion made up of lawmakers, a doctor, and an advocate who reacted to this 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation.
Hear their deeply personal ties to the epidemic on Tuesday, May 15 on 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.
Updated: May 14, 2018 10:23 PM
Created: May 14, 2018 12:28 PM
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