Federal Prosecutors Warn Top Opioid Prescribers in Wisconsin

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Wisconsin’s two U.S. Attorneys have sent letters to 180 physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners in the state warning them that their opioid prescribing practices could result in prosecution.

None of the prescribers have been charged with a crime and it’s not clear if any are under investigation or have been linked to overdoses. Copies of the letters were not released and the recipients were not identified.

According to a news release, the letters warn doctors that they are prescribing opioids at “relatively high levels” that could lead to addiction and that “prescribing opioids without a legitimate medical purpose could subject them to enforcement action, including criminal prosecution.”

“We know that for many, addiction began with opioids prescribed by a medical professional,” said Matthew Krueger, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Wisconsin. “By sending these letters, we are asking medical professionals to join the fight against addiction and ensure they prescribe no more opioids than are necessary.”

“Opioid addiction has touched the lives of far too many families in our state,” said Scott Blader, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Wisconsin. “Medical professionals play a pivotal role in stemming the flow of legal opioids into unlawful channels.”

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According to a spokeswoman, the 180 recipients of the warning letters were selected based on a review of Medicare prescription drug claims, which found that they prescribed opioids above the CDC’s highest recommended dose of 90 MMEs (morphine milligram equivalent). 

“They were identified through Medicare data for two years,” Myra Longfield, a public information officer in the Western District of Wisconsin, told PNN. “And from that data, practitioners were identified where they prescribed on average 90 MMEs (or more) per patient per day. That’s the threshold where the CDC and the Wisconsin Medical Examining Board say there is no real evidence to suggest that above that amount has any better effect on chronic pain.” 

The 2016 CDC opioid guideline is voluntary and only intended for primary care physicians. Longfield said warning letters were not sent to pain management physicians, oncologists or those working in hospice or palliative care, where higher opioid doses may be needed to control pain. 

Chilling Effect on Prescribers

Federal prosecutors in Georgia and Massachusetts have sent similar warning letters to high prescribers. While the intent is to urge caution, critics say the letters are likely to intimidate other doctors.

“This will have a totally chilling effect. The abuse of statistics is pathetic. It would only be an ignorant person that would take the top prescribers and say that they are endangering lives,” said Mark Ibsen, MD, a Montana doctor who nearly lost his medical license over allegations that he overprescribed opioids.  

“After they lop off the top prescribing doctors, guess what that leaves? More top prescribing doctors. Until there are none. Soon we will be seeing tattoos on physicians, similar to POWs.”

“This is an egregious overreach and will lead to more deaths not fewer,” said Lynn Webster, MD, a pain management expert and past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “Using the CDC guidelines as a goal post is not what even the CDC recommended. Most opioid addictions do not begin with a legal prescription of opioids. It usually starts long before exposure to a prescription opioid. The major problem is with illegal opioids smuggled in from Mexico and China. 

“I am worried for tens of thousands of patients in Wisconsin. Many of them will be at risk of suicide or seek illegal drugs, where the real harm exists. Sad. Very Sad.”

Last year, the American Medical Association adopted resolutions opposing the “misapplication” and “inappropriate use” of the CDC guideline. The resolutions by the AMA House of Delegates warn that “no entity should use MME thresholds as anything more than guidance” and that physicians should not be disciplined or prosecuted for prescribing opioids at levels above those recommended by the CDC. The AMA said some patients “can benefit from taking opioids at greater dosages” and “such care may be medically necessary and appropriate.” 

Most opioid overdoses in the United States are now linked to illicit fentanyl and heroin, not prescription opioids. In Wisconsin, 916 people died of opioid overdoses in 2017. Most of those deaths involved either heroin or fentanyl.