By Pat Anson, Editor
Deborah Vallier is living proof that high doses of opioid medication can safely relieve pain and improve quality of life. The 42-year old Michigan woman says her chronic back pain was so bad before she started getting high dose opioids that she contemplated suicide.
“I was so bad that I spent most of my time in bed. I didn’t leave my house for almost two years, except for doctor’s appointments,” Vallier says.
After seeing over a dozen doctors in her home state and getting little pain relief, Vallier flew to California last April to see Dr. Forest Tennant, a prominent pain specialist.
“Now, because of Dr. Tennant, I’m able to go to (my son’s) high school football games. I’m able to go to his wrestling matches. I actually have some of my life back, where I’m not stuck in bed and thinking about suicide.”
It was Tennant who diagnosed Vallier with adhesive arachnoiditis, a disabling, incurable and painful inflammation of nerves in her spine. Tennant put Vallier on a regimen of hormones and opioid medication – a dose more than double the highest amount recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is 90mg morphine equivalent dose (MED).
“I would say I’m close to close to 200mg,” Vallier says.
That kind of high dose would be inappropriate – even dangerous – for most pain patients. But for Vallier and about 100 other intractable pain patients that Tennant sees, it’s not unusual at all. Tennant puts many on multiple medications that include opioids, anti-depressants, hormones, muscle relaxants and benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety medication. Patients from 25 different states see Tennant and most consider him a life saver.
“I credit him with saving my life. Absolutely, no doubt,” says Dale Rice.
But to the Drug Enforcement Administration, those high doses of pain medication and multiple prescriptions to out-of-state patients are signs of criminal activity and drug diversion.
In November, DEA agents raided Tennant’s home and pain clinic in West Covina, CA, using a search warrant that alleged Tennant was part of a drug trafficking organization and insinuated that his patients were selling their drugs on the black market. In early December, the DEA used another search warrant to raid Sunny Hills Pharmacy in Fullerton, CA, where 19 of Tennant’s patients get their prescriptions filled.
“I know based on my training and experience that patients traveling long distances to obtain controlled substance prescriptions is another ‘red flag’ of drug abuse and addiction. The out-of-state patients also received multiple opiate and benzodiazepine drug cocktails,” wrote lead DEA investigator Stephanie Kolb, who according to her LinkedIn profile was self-employed as a dog walker and pet groomer before she started working for the DEA in 2012.
“Either they’re extremely ignorant that patients have to travel out of state to find the top specialists, because no one in their area knows how to treat them, or they’re just trying to go after doctors and eliminate the ones that they see as a problem, the ones that are helping patients who need high doses,” says Vallier. “We have failed all other treatments and there’s nowhere else to go. Why are they going after him?”
Judging by the search warrants, the medical experts hired by the DEA as consultants in the Tennant case seemed unfamiliar with the nature of his practice. In the Sunny Hills search warrant, Kolb quoted Dr. Timothy Munzing, a family practice physician who reviewed Tennant’s prescribing records.
Munzing noted that “many patients are traveling long distances to see Dr. Tennant” and thought it unusual that many were prescribed “extremely high numbers of pills/tablets.”
“I find to a high level of certainty that after review of the medical records… that Dr. Tennant failed to meet the requirements in prescribing these dangerous medications. These prescribing patterns are highly suspicious for medication abuse/and or diversion. If the patients are actually using all the medications prescribed, they are at high risk for addiction, overdose, and death,” Munzing wrote.
Munzing is an experienced family practice physician who has worked as a consultant for the DEA and the Medical Board of California for several years.
According to GovTribe, a website that tracks payments to federal contractors, Munzing is paid $300 an hour by the DEA to work as an expert witness and to review patient records. Munzing was paid about $45,000 by the DEA during the period Tennant's prescribing records were under review.
Vallier says Munzing is not qualified to critique Tennant’s medical practice.
“This is almost like having a proctologist be the advisor for the American Dental Association. Just because he’s an MD does not mean he is trained for intractable pain,” she said.
‘I’m Afraid I’m Going to Die’
Tennant denies any wrongdoing, has not been charged with a crime and – after three years of investigation -- the DEA has not publicly produced evidence that any of his patients have overdosed, been harmed by his treatments, or that they are selling their drugs. Tennant’s clinic also remains open.
But the fallout from the DEA raids has frightened many of Tennant’s patients and left some without adequate medication. 53-year old Dale Rice used to get his prescriptions filled at Sunny Hills, but after the pharmacy was raided he was told to go elsewhere. Rice found another pharmacy in Rancho Cucamonga, but the pharmacist there is only willing to fill some of his high dose opioid prescriptions. Rice estimates he’s now only taking about half of his regular dose of opioids.
“I thought the hardest part was dealing with the insurance company, and now I can’t get a prescription filled,” says Rice, who suffers intractable pain from arachnoiditis, scoliosis, arthritis and failed back surgery. Like many of Tennant’s patients, Rice is also a rapid metabolizer of opioids and gets only a fraction of the pain relief other patients get from them.
“You pull the rug out from under me with all these medications and it’s hard on the body. Dr. Tennant told me I could die from adrenal failure, a stroke, a massive heart attack, anything like that,” Rice told PNN. “I’m afraid I’m going to die. I’m afraid I could drop dead right now.
“I predict by the end of the year I’ll be probably bedridden again, unless something changes.”
Another Tennant patient worried about her future is Trini Yeager, a 59-year old California woman who developed arachnoiditis after a failed back surgery and a misplaced epidural steroid injection into her spine. Once very fit and active, Yeager now has trouble walking and spends most of her day in bed.
“What’s going on is absolutely outlandish and just very corrupt in my opinion,” Yeager says. “I’m just shocked beyond belief that they would do this to Dr. Tennant.
“He is being crucified for cleaning up other doctor’s messes. That’s really what’s happening.”
Yeager takes multiple opioid medications at the highest doses available, and even then gets only limited pain relief. Asked what would happen if her dosage was brought within the CDC opioid guidelines, she spoke bluntly and without hesitation.
“I would commit suicide and I would post it publicly. And I would tell people that the DEA was responsible,” Yeager said. “The pain is so tremendous, I can’t even tell you. If they took my medications away or took them down, they would have a public suicide on their hands.”
Sunny Hills was one of 26 pharmacies recently targeted by the DEA in in “Operation Faux Pharmacy,” an investigation that focused on so-called rogue pharmacies in California, Nevada and Hawaii that the agency alleges “may have operated outside the bounds of legitimate medicine.”
The agency made a public show out of the pharmacy raids, inviting television cameras to record DEA agents hauling medical records out of one Southern California pharmacy.
"I don't prescribe medication, doctors prescribe medication," pharmacy owner David Rubin told KNBC-TV. "I'm not like one of those pharmacies you read about on TV. Everything is documented everything is crosschecked with the doctors."
"We only went after the pharmacies that we thought were prescribing or putting drugs on the street that had no obvious medical reason to do so," said David Downing, the special agent in charge of the investigation.
The DEA may just be getting started. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently ordered all U.S. Attorneys to appoint “opioid coordinators” in their districts to monitor opioid prescriptions and to convene local law enforcement task forces to identify more doctors and pharmacies for prosecution.
Ironically, a few days after the raid on Sunny Hills, a teenage drug courier was caught in San Ysidro, CA at the Mexican border attempting to smuggle illicit fentanyl into the U.S. Nearly 78 pounds of fentanyl -- a synthetic opioid up to 100 times more potent than morphine -- were found hidden inside a 2010 Ford Focus. Experts say that is enough fentanyl to kill 17 million people --- or half the state of California.
Dr. Tennant and the Tennant Foundation have given financial support to Pain News Network and are currently sponsoring PNN’s Patient Resources section.