Supreme Court Case May Decide Future of Opioid Prescribing – Pain News Network

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By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
Over a dozen patient and physician advocacy groups have filed legal briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of two doctors appealing their convictions for criminal violations of the Controlled Substances Act.
The nation’s high court has consolidated the cases of Dr. Xiulu Ruan of Alabama and Dr. Shakeel Kahn, who practiced in Wyoming and Arizona. Both doctors were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being convicted on a variety of charges – including the prescribing of high doses of opioid pain medication to patients “outside the usual course of professional practice.”
Oral arguments will be heard by the Supreme Court on March 1, with a decision expected later in 2022. Monday was the deadline for interested parties to file “amicus curiae” briefs on the case, which could have a significant impact on opioid prescribing practices nationwide if the appeals are successful. Many doctors have stopped or reduced their prescribing of opioids because they fear being prosecuted under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
“It is no exaggeration to say that CSA prosecutions of physicians have already impaired the treatment of chronic pain,” Ruan’s attorneys said in their appeal. “In response to the opioid crisis, fear of prosecution has increasingly prompted pain management doctors to avoid or reduce opioid prescriptions, even when those decisions leave chronic pain patients without recourse.”
A successful appeal would mean Ruan and Kahn could ask for new trials, along with dozens of other doctors convicted of similar charges under the CSA.
“It will also avoid what I see as the chilling effect that it’s had on lots of doctors who are not doing anything even remotely suspicious, but are afraid that they are going to get caught because they prescribe a higher dose, and so they’re dropping people from care or tapering them,” said Kate Nicholson, Executive Director of the National Pain Advocacy Center (NPAC).
NPAC, along with other advocacy groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are asking the high court to clearly state how the practice of medicine should be regulated under the CSA. Some argued it is best left to state medical boards, not federal prosecutors or law enforcement.
“Patients with pain, addiction, or both desperately need appropriate care and treatment. If practitioners are held strictly liable under (the CSA), patient abandonment will become ever more common as practitioners act to avoid scrutiny,” Jennifer Oliva and Kelly Dineen, professors of health law and policy, said in their brief. “Progress in medical care in these areas can only recover if the regulation of medical practice is returned to the province of the states except in narrow circumstances.”
At issue in the Ruan/Kahn case is what constitutes the “standard of care” and “usual course of professional practice” under the CSA. Doctors traditionally have been given wide latitude in determining what’s appropriate for a patient, as long as they act in “good faith” with a medical purpose. But that laissez-faire approach came to an end as the overdose crisis intensified and doctors came under more scrutiny for their opioid prescribing practices. 
“No other country criminalizes physician behavior like the federal prosecutors have done in the US. This is especially the case as these prosecutions are all based on a whim with an ‘expert’ opinion rendered by a hired government expert and orchestrated by a new generation of overzealous and unchecked federal prosecutors pointing fingers at wealthy doctors as greedy drug pushers and fraudsters,” Physicians Against Abuse argued in its brief.
“Doctors are just a ‘sitting duck’ for these federal prosecutors who raid medical offices and unlike the career drug pusher on the streets who gets caught and charged with one or two counts, federal prosecutors pile up count after count because doctors are required to keep records and those records are used against them in these out of control prosecutions against physicians.”  
Complicating Ruan’s appeal is that he often gave patients Subsys, an expensive and potent fentanyl spray that was only approved by the FDA for breakthrough cancer pain. Ruan prescribed Subsys “off label” to patients who didn’t have cancer, which made him an easy target for federal prosecutors who were building a massive fraud and bribery case against Insys Therapeutics, the manufacturer of Subsys.
In his new book, “The Hard Sell: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup,” author Evan Hughes depicts Ruan as a greedy and ruthless physician who was more interested in acquiring luxury cars and Insys stock than he was in treating patients. According to Hughes, Ruan and his business partner ran their pain clinic and adjoining pharmacy like a factory.
“Instead of collecting a mere $200 or so for an office visit, Couch and Ruan treated each patient as a profit center, an opportunity to bill for tests and procedures in-house, or to refer out to some other provider who would cut them in on the business. They reinvested to grow their factory, buying new machines that added lucrative capabilities,” Hughes wrote.
In addition to the charges against him under the CSA, Ruan was convicted of taking kickbacks from Insys in exchange for prescribing “massive quantities” of Subsys. Ruan was one of the top prescribers of Subsys in the United States.
Kahn was convicted of more than 20 counts involving excess prescribing of oxycodone and other controlled substances, and running a criminal enterprise that resulted in the death of a patient. When federal agents raided his properties in Wyoming and Arizona, they found firearms and over $1 million in cash.
Advocates hope the Supreme Court will overlook the seedier aspects of both cases and rule in a way that clearly defines the rights of doctors under the CSA to prescribe medications they deem appropriate.
“I think our biggest concern is having the correct standard moving forward so that doctors have space to practice medicine appropriately and patients stop suffering,” Nicholson told PNN. “My guess is that they’ll do something to clarify, but how objectively or subjectively they go, I think that’s anyone’s guess.”  

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