Lawyer Calls for DOJ to End ‘Indiscriminate Raids’ on Doctors

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

In recent years, hundreds of physicians, pharmacists and addiction treatment doctors have had their offices raided and searched by DEA agents.

Many of the raids were orchestrated by the Justice Department’s Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, a special team of investigators created in 2017 to mine opioid prescribing data to identify suspicious orders and practices. The investigations have resulted in the high-profile arrests of healthcare providers for fraud and risky opioid prescribing.

"If you're a doctor and you want to act like a drug dealer, we're going to treat you like one. And sometimes the only difference between a doctor and a drug dealer is a white coat," U.S. Attorney Jay Town said about a federal takedown in April that resulted in charges against 60 practitioners in seven states.

Rarely publicized are the cases where criminal charges are never filed because the evidence against doctors is weak or non-existent.

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“It’s quite frustrating to see how their careers were ruined even though they never faced criminal charges. That’s because the government was incapable of bringing credible charges against them,” says attorney Michael Barnes, who is managing partner at DCBA Law & Policy, a law firm that advises healthcare providers. “When I read a criminal complaint, what I would see as ‘best practices’ is construed as criminal exploitative behavior on the part of the prosecutors.

“There’s a heavy bias against medications to treat pain and opioid use disorder that is driving some of the aggressive enforcement actions. Also, an overzealousness combined with a lack of understanding of the practice of medicine.”

Barnes recently wrote an op/ed, published online by American University’s Washington College of Law, calling for an end to the DOJ’s “indiscriminate raids” on doctors.

“DOJ raids and searches of professionals’ homes and medical clinics interrupt the delivery of health care, put patients’ lives at risk, and unjustly destroy careers and livelihoods. They also create confusion and fear,” wrote Barnes. “Not all health care professionals subject to the DOJ’s searches and seizures are ‘dirty docs.’ In fact, some of them are nationally recognized leaders not just in pain management, but also in addiction medicine.” 

Barnes cites the case of Dr. Stuart Gitlow, an addiction psychiatrist whose Rhode Island home and office were raided by FBI agents in March 2018. Sixteen months later, the reasons for the raid remain unclear and Gitlow, the former president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, has not been charged with a crime.  

MICHAEL BARNES

MICHAEL BARNES

Neither has Dr. Forest Tennant. In November 2017, DEA agents raided the office and home of Tennant, a prominent California pain physician who was flagged for “very suspicious prescribing patterns.” In a search warrant, the 76-year old Tennant was depicted as the kingpin of a drug trafficking organization that spanned several states.

“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,” wrote DEA investigator Stephanie Kolb, who led a two-year investigation of Tennant.

But Kolb, who was self-employed as a dog walker and pet groomer before she started working for the DEA in 2012, failed to note that Tennant only treated intractable pain patients, many from out-of-state, and often prescribed high doses of opioids because of their chronically poor health. Some patients were in palliative care and near death, and one committed suicide after learning of the raid, fearing she would lose access to opioid medication.

Tennant denies any wrongdoing and was never formally charged, but retired from clinical practice a few months after the raid.

“It’s hard to continue operating when they never closed my case, and so I’m going to retire and move on,” Tennant told PNN at the time. “That’s on the advice of both my lawyers and my doctors."

(Dr. Tennant and the Tennant Foundation have given financial support to Pain News Network and are currently sponsoring PNN’s Patient Resources section.)  

Biased Investigations

Barnes says the biases of some prosecutors extends to the expert witnesses they hire to help build their cases. The role of these witnesses is important because they help DOJ persuade judges to sign off on search warrants that are key to gathering evidence. It’s a lucrative sideline for some paid witnesses, who charge the government hundreds of dollars an hour for their time and expertise.

“Expert witnesses are eager to give DOJ business to get the expert witness fees, and they of course will help to spin the facts in a way that is prejudicial to the defendant,” Barnes said. “What we’re seeing here is people who are really not qualified to be making assessments of other practices serving as experts for the government.” 

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Dr. Timothy Munzing, a Kaiser Permanente family practice physician in California, has worked as a medical consultant for the DEA, FBI and DOJ on over 100 investigations, most of which involve prescriptions for opioids and other controlled substances.

According to GovTribe.com, which tracks payments to federal contractors, Munzing has been awarded nearly $1 million in DOJ contracts since 2017 and is currently working on nearly two dozen DEA investigations, mostly reviewing patient files and data from prescription drug monitoring programs.

It would be unusual for a family practice physician to treat an intractable pain patient without making a referral to a pain or palliative care specialist. But Munzing was one of the expert witnesses hired by the DEA to analyze Tennant’s prescribing.

“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,” Munzing wrote in an affidavit. “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’s affidavit and the DEA search warrant identified no patients who were actually harmed while under Tennant’s care. As PNN reported, some patients found the allegation that they were selling their medication and funneling the profits back to Tennant laughable.      

“It’s like everything else they do. They don’t talk to any patients. They don’t talk to any doctors. They just go and throw all this stuff out there and making all these incriminations against people. They don’t have any evidence that I’ve sold anything. It’s just ludicrous,” said Ryle Holder, a Tennant patient who lives in Georgia.  

Barnes says the bias against opioid prescribing “is inherent in the work of many of the investigators and prosecutors.”

“Then there is the incompetence as it relates to many of the law enforcement officers not having the medical expertise to make judgements of a medical nature. And then, when they do consult with the experts, those experts are typically trying to please their clients and getting repeat business as a result,” he told PNN. 

State Medical Boards

To bring more expertise into investigations of healthcare providers, Barnes is proposing that state medical boards play a more prominent role. He wants Congress to amend federal law to require DOJ investigators and prosecutors to get a referral from a state licensing board before investigating a practitioner for misconduct. Similar laws at the state level would also need to be changed to require state and local law enforcement to get a referral from a medical licensing board.

To make sure complaints are handled in a timely manner, Barnes says federal funds should be used to bolster the budgets of state licensing boards so they can investigate allegations of misconduct.  

“There are some detractors who say medical boards didn’t do an adequate job leading up to the overdose crisis. But the reality is neither did law enforcement,” Barnes says. “The medical boards could get up to speed and make these assessments on medical needs and patient care to make sure that healthcare providers can be assessed with medical expertise, rather than law enforcement trying to guess about standard of care and best practices.”

“Making it more difficult for law enforcement to investigate potential diversion of dangerous and addictive controlled substances, including powerful painkillers, is probably not going to happen right now,” says DEA spokesman Rusty Payne.

This idea that people need to worry about the DEA hiding in the bushes if they write an oxycodone prescription is ridiculous.
— Rusty Payne, DEA spokesman

Payne points out the DEA is both a law enforcement and regulatory agency, one that oversees 1.3 million practitioners licensed to prescribe controlled substances. He says enforcement actions are relatively rare and not “indiscriminate” as Barnes suggests.

“The numbers are incredibly low. It is a very, very, very small number.  So this idea that people need to worry about the DEA hiding in the bushes if they write an oxycodone prescription is ridiculous,” he told PNN. “We don’t have the resources. We don’t track individual prescriptions. We look for patterns and large-scale significant diversion.”  

Getting state medical boards involved, according to Payne, is not a good idea.

“I don’t think making it harder for us to scrutinize those that are acting outside the law is in anyone’s best interest,” he said.

But Barnes’ proposal makes sense, according to Dr. Lynn Webster, a PNN columnist and former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. 

“Barnes makes a sensible recommendation. If the law enforcement suspects a provider is not complying with the law, then the first step should be a referral to the medical board where the provider can be evaluated by their peers,” Webster said. “If a doctor goes to trial, they will not be evaluated by their peers. That is not the way the justice system is supposed to work.” 

Webster was once the target of a federal investigation of his opioid prescribing practices and DEA agents raided his Utah pain clinic in 2010. Four years later, the DOJ said it would not prosecute Webster, who said his “reputation was tarnished forever.”  

“DEA investigations are often designed to entrap a provider on technicalities.  Even if an investigation never leads to any charges the doctor's reputation is damaged.  In the court of public opinion an investigation must mean something was wrong,” Webster said. 

Feds Target Doctors and Pharmacies in New Crackdown

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over the next few weeks, the Drug Enforcement Administration will step up investigations of pharmacies and doctors found to be dispensing or prescribing suspicious amounts of opioid pain medication.

The so-called “surge” -- announced by Attorney General Jeff Sessions – is the latest in a series of steps the Justice Department has taken to combat the opioid crisis.

“Over the next 45 days, DEA will surge Special Agents, Diversion Investigators, and Intelligence Research Specialists to focus on pharmacies and prescribers who are dispensing unusual or disproportionate amounts of drugs,” Sessions said during a Tuesday speech to law enforcement officials in Louisville, KY.

“DEA collects some 80 million transaction reports every year from manufacturers and distributors of prescription drugs.  These reports contain information like distribution figures and inventory.  DEA will aggregate these numbers to find patterns, trends, statistical outliers -- and put them into targeting packages,” Sessions said.

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"That will help us make more arrests, secure more convictions -- and ultimately help us reduce the number of prescription drugs available for Americans to get addicted to or overdose from these dangerous drugs.”

But that kind of data mining of opioid prescriptions -- without examining the full context of who the medications were prescribed for or why – can be problematic and misleading.

For example, the DEA last year raided the offices of Dr. Forest Tennant, a prominent California pain physician, as well as two pharmacies regularly used by his patients. Tennant only treats intractable pain patients, many from out-of-state, and often prescribes high doses of opioids and other prescription drugs  because of their chronically poor health. Some of his patients are in palliative care and near death.

Those important facts were omitted or ignored by DEA investigators, who alleged in a search warrant that Tennant had “very suspicious prescribing patterns” and was part of a drug trafficking organization.

“It’s not like he’s just giving out high doses of medication and running a pill mill, like they said. That to me was the most asinine statement in that whole search warrant,” said Riley Holder, a disabled pharmacist with intractable pain who is one of Tennant’s patients.

Tennant has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with a crime.

Last August, Sessions ordered the formation of a new data analysis team, the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, to focus solely on opioid-related health care fraud.  He also assigned a dozen prosecutors to “hot spots” around the country where opioid addiction is common. In November, Sessions ordered all 94 U.S. Attorneys to designate an opioid coordinator to help spearhead anti-opioid strategies in their district.

FBI to Target Online Pharmacies

Sessions this week also announced the formation of a new FBI investigative team, called the Joint Criminal Opioid Darknet Enforcement (J-CODE) unit, which will focus on shutting down illegal online pharmacies. Dozens of FBI agents and intelligence analysts are being assigned to J-CODE.  

“Criminals think that they are safe on the darknet, but they are in for a rude awakening. We have already infiltrated their networks, and we are determined to bring them to justice,” Sessions said. “The J-CODE team will help us continue to shut down the online marketplaces that drug traffickers use and ultimately that will help us reduce addiction and overdoses across the nation.”

As PNN has reported, the online pharmacy business is booming. As many as 35,000 online pharmacies are operating worldwide, and over 90 percent are not in compliance with federal and state laws.  Many do not require a prescription, and about half are selling counterfeit painkillers and other fake medications. About 20 illegal online pharmacies are launched every day.

A staff report last week to the U.S. Senate's Subcommittee on Investigations found that it was relatively easy to find and order prescription drugs online. Senate investigators used Google search to find dozens of websites offering illegal opioids for purchase, including fentanyl and carfentanil. They also identified seven individuals who died from fentanyl-related overdoses after sending money and receiving packages from an online seller.

“I’m thrilled this is something the U.S. government is prioritizing and is starting to pay attention to,” says Libby Baney, Executive Director of the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP), an industry supported non-profit. “The Internet is part of the problem right now when it comes to the opioid epidemic and it should be part of the solution.”

Baney told PNN that when illegal online pharmacies are shutdown, they often reappear under new domain names and website addresses. Many are also located in foreign countries and are outside the reach of U.S. law enforcement.

“It’s a game of whack-a-mole in some respects,” said Baney.  

Last year the Justice Department announced the seizure of the largest dark net marketplace in history, a site that hosted over 200,000 drug listings and was linked to numerous opioid overdoses, including the death of a 13-year old.

Controversial Genetic Testing Company in Receivership

By Pat Anson, Editor

A controversial genetic testing firm under federal investigation for healthcare fraud has been placed into court-ordered receivership – a form of bankruptcy – that could lead to the restructuring and sale of the company. The CEO and founder of Proove Biosciences has also left the company.

In an interview with STAT, former CEO Brian Meshkin blamed the company's financial problems on “erroneous and damaging” reports that were based on “false allegations” by disgruntled former employees.

Proove Biosciences specializes in DNA testing that the company claims can improve the effectiveness of pain management treatment and determine whether a patient is at risk of opioid addiction.

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In June, FBI agents raided the company’s headquarters in Irvine, California. Former and current employees who were interviewed by STAT said the agents were focused on possible kickbacks to doctors who encouraged patients to take Proove’s DNA tests. Physicians reportedly could make $144,000 a year in kickbacks that were called “research fees.”

In July, PNN reported that Proove was linked to a Medicare fraud case, in which three Indiana healthcare providers allegedly “caused Proove Bioscience… to falsely and fraudulently bill various health care programs for genetic tests... that were not medically necessary and never interpreted."

Proove was not named as a defendant in the Indiana case. In an email to PNN, Meshkin said Proove had cooperated with investigators.

“Proove has cooperated with both the FBI and US Attorney’s office on this case," said Meshkin. "With regards to tests being 'medically necessary', Proove received written and signed determinations of medical necessity supporting the tests ordered and billed to insurance carriers just like every other laboratory which requires such a determination on a test requisition form. Thus Proove operated appropriately and consistent with usual and customary practices."

Meshkin also defended Proove research, published in the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy, which claimed to show the effectiveness of its genetic tests.The publisher of the journal, OMICS International, has been accused by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of deceiving researchers and readers about the true nature of its publications and peer review process.

"Proove can only speak to its experience with this particular journal,” Meshkin said in an email to PNN. "Specifically for papers submitted to this journal, our R&D team and academic collaborators engaged in documented, extensive peer-review, received suggested edits and provided responses to the suggested edits to the manuscripts submitted for review and publication. Thus, Proove would certainly consider the publications accepted from Proove-affiliated authors in that journal to be 'peer-reviewed'."

According to the FTC complaint filed last August, OMICS  has created hundreds of "open access" online medical journals that publish articles with little or no peer review. Researchers are also charged significant fees to get their articles published by OMICS, a "pay to play" policy that some consider unethical because it diminishes the quality of academic journals and the peer review process.

Proove has aggressively promoted its genetic tests with healthcare providers around the country. A pain clinic in Montana, for example, had a Proove “patient engagement representative” employed on site at the Benefis Pain Management Center in Great Falls.

“We had a meeting one day and here are these people from Proove Biosciences. They told us they were doing a research project,” said Rodney Lutes, a physician assistant who was later fired by Benefis. “They wanted to come to Benefis, into the pain department, and test our patients.  We were told this would be at no cost to the patient. My understanding was that they weren’t going to charge anybody, but I found out afterwards they were charging insurance companies.

“They said providers who participated in this would get some form of payment for participating in the program and for filling out all the paperwork.”

Lutes’ supervising physician at the clinic was Katrina Lewis, MD, a pain management specialist at Benefis who is listed as a member of Proove’s Medical Advisory Board.  Lewis apparently plays a significant role at the clinic, even though she only works there part time. Benefis has denied that Lewis or any of its employees received kickbacks from Proove for referring business to them.

STAT reported that Proove’s restructuring was apparently ordered by Mike Leavitt, a Proove board member, who also served as Utah governor and secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Leavitt’s investment firm, Leavitt Equity Partners, provided about $7 million in funding to Proove, according to Meshkin.

A former Proove manager told STAT that she initially felt good about going to work for the company, but soon had misgivings about Proove's research and billing practices.

“It sucked the life out of me, on an integrity level,” said Rhonda Frantz-Smith. “It got more and more corrupt.”

Proove Biosciences Linked to Fraud Investigation

By Pat Anson, Editor

A genetic testing company in southern California has been linked to a nationwide crackdown on healthcare fraud that resulted in criminal charges being filed against hundreds of doctors, nurses and medical professionals.

Among the defendants are three individuals affiliated with Physicians Primary Care of Jeffersonville, Indiana, who are accused of unlawfully dispensing oxycodone, hydrocodone and other opioid medications to patients without a legitimate medical need.

The charges also allege that Jeffrey Campbell, MD, and nurse practitioners Mark Dyer and Dawn Antle "caused Proove Bioscience, Inc., a genetic lab company, to falsely and fraudulently bill various health care programs for genetic tests administered to Physicians Primary Care patients that were not medically necessary and never interpreted."

Proove Biosciences is not formally charged in the grand jury indictment, which was unsealed yesterday in the U.S. District Court of Kentucky in Louisville. In an emailed statement to PNN, Proove's founder and CEO said the company cooperated with authorities and terminated its contract with Dr. Campbell when it first learned of the investigation in 2014.

"Since then, Proove has cooperated with both the FBI and US Attorney’s office on this case," said Brian Meshkin. "With regards to tests being 'medically necessary', Proove received written and signed determinations of medical necessity supporting the tests ordered and billed to insurance carriers just like every other laboratory which requires such a determination on a test requisition form. Thus Proove operated appropriately and consistent with usual and customary practices."

As PNN has reportedProove’s headquarters in Irvine, California was raided by FBI agents last month, along with doctors affiliated with Proove in California, Florida and Kentucky. At the time, the FBI would only say the raids were part of a healthcare fraud investigation.

STAT News reported in February that the FBI and the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were investigating possible criminal activity at Proove. Former and current employees interviewed by the FBI said agents were focused on illegal kickbacks to doctors who encouraged patients to take Proove’s DNA tests. Physicians reportedly could make $144,000 a year in kickbacks that were called “research fees.”

"Proove has been subject to a handful of inaccurate stories,” Proove said in a statement last month.  “We can no longer ignore these false stories based on unreliable sources, and filled with erroneous accusations... spread by a few disgruntled former employees and consultants.”

In all, 412 defendants have been charged nationwide in what the Justice Department calls its “largest ever health care fraud enforcement action.” Most of the charges, according to prosecutors, involve the illegal distribution of painkillers and $1.3 billion in various billing schemes that targeted Medicare, Medicaid and TRICARE, a health insurance program for veterans and their families.    

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said nearly 300 health care providers were being suspended or banned from participating in federal health programs.

“Too many trusted medical professionals like doctors, nurses, and pharmacists have chosen to violate their oaths and put greed ahead of their patients,” said Sessions. “Amazingly, some have made their practices into multi-million dollar criminal enterprises. They seem oblivious to the disastrous consequences of their greed. Their actions not only enrich themselves often at the expense of taxpayers but also feed addictions and cause addictions to start.”

Proove’s ‘Peer Reviewed’ Studies

Proove Biosciences promotes itself as a “leader in personalized pain medicine” and claims its genetic tests have been proven effective in clinical studies at identifying medications that can best treat pain and other health conditions. Critics say most Proove studies are not peer-reviewed and one genetic expert told STAT News the studies were “hogwash.”

Last month Proove claimed in a press release that 91% of patients in a peer-reviewed study reported pain relief after treatment changes prompted by its genetic tests. The press release said the study -- conducted by Katrina Lewis, MD, a member of Proove's medical advisory board who works at Benefis Pain Management Center in Great Falls, Montana – was “accepted for publication by the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy.”

Not only has the study still not been published, but the journal’s publisher has been accused by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of deceiving researchers and readers about the true nature of its publications and peer review process.

According to the FTC complaint filed last August, OMICS International has created hundreds of "open access" online medical journals that publish articles with little or no peer review.

Researchers are also charged significant fees to get their articles published by OMICS, a "pay to play" policy that some consider unethical because it diminishes the quality of academic journals and the peer review process.

According to its website, OMICS publishes a dizzying array of over 700 online medical and scientific journals, ranging from the Journal of Hepatitis to the Journal of Yoga and Physical Therapy, "the official journal of Yoga Federation of Russia and the Hong Kong Yoga Association." 

“In reality, many of Defendants’ online publications do not adopt the rigorous peer review practices that are standard in the scholarly journal publishing industry,” the FTC complaint says. “In numerous instances, individuals who have agreed to serve as peer reviewers for Defendants either never receive any manuscripts to review or discover that, when they access the online manuscript review system to review their assigned articles, the articles have already been approved for publication. In addition, in numerous instances, consumers receive no edits or, at most, only stylistic edits before Defendants publish the work.” 

"As for the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy, Proove can only speak to its experience with this particular journal and cannot comment on the allegations by the FTC," said CEO Meshkin. "Specifically for papers submitted to this journal, our R&D team and academic collaborators engaged in documented, extensive peer-review, received suggested edits and provided responses to the suggested edits to the manuscripts submitted for review and publication. Thus, Proove would certainly consider the publications accepted from Proove-affiliated authors in that journal to be 'peer-reviewed'." 

In March, OMICS published in the Journal of Addiction Research & Therapy a study by Proove which found that one of the company’s genetic tests could identify patients at high-risk of developing opioid use disorder. Proove said in a news release the study had been peer reviewed. 

In April, a second Proove study was published in Pharmacogenomics and Personalized Medicine, an online journal published by Dove Medical Press, another so-called predatory publisher that charges high fees to researchers to get their studies into medical journals.

"This is the first of many peer-reviewed publications over the next several months demonstrating the validity of Proove Opioid Risk (test), building on the existing published evidence," Dr. Svetlana Kantorovich, Proove's Research and Development director said in a news release.

Genetic Testing Company Raided by FBI

By Pat Anson, Editor

FBI agents have raided the headquarters of Proove Biosciences, a controversial genetic testing company that claims its DNA tests can improve the effectiveness of pain management and determine whether a patient is at risk of opioid addiction.

Over two dozen FBI agents appeared at Proove offices in Irvine, California Wednesday as part of a healthcare fraud investigation. They were later seen carrying dozens of boxes out of two buildings

“It is an ongoing investigation out of our San Diego office. It involves healthcare fraud. And unfortunately we are unable to say anything more about it at this time. The affidavit supporting the search warrant is under seal,” Cathy Kramer, an FBI special agent, told KABC-TV.

STAT News reported in February that the FBI and the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) were investigating possible criminal activity at Proove.

Former and current employees who were interviewed by the FBI told STAT the agents were focused on possible kickbacks to doctors who encouraged patients to take Proove’s DNA tests. Physicians reportedly could make $144,000 a year in kickbacks that were called “research fees.”

The HHS Inspector General issued a Special Fraud Alert in 2014 warning physicians that any payments, referrals, rent or reimbursements from lab testing companies could be seen as violations of anti-kickback laws.

Proove promotes itself as the “leader in personalized pain medicine” and claims its genetic tests can identify medications that would be most effective at treating pain. The company recently claimed that 94% of patients experienced significant pain relief within 60 days of treatment changes recommended by Proove. Critics say most Proove studies are not peer-reviewed and one genetic expert has called them “hogwash.”

According to STAT, doctors affiliated with Proove in California, Florida and Kentucky were also raided by the FBI. Proove said it was cooperating with the investigation, and that no arrests or charges have been made.

"Proove has been subject to a handful of inaccurate stories initiated by STAT News that we believe have contributed to this latest action," the company said in a statement. "While we originally chose not to dignify these outlandish accusations with a response, we now understand that we can no longer ignore these false stories based on unreliable sources, and filled with erroneous accusations... spread by a few disgruntled former employees and consultants.  Proove is confident that the facts supported by verifiable and reliable sources will clearly restore our reputation."

Proove Linked to Montana Pain Clinic

Proove is the second laboratory testing company raided by the FBI that has been linked to Benefis Pain Management Center, a pain clinic in Great Falls, Montana. 

As PNN has reported, FBI agents last November raided the offices of Confirmatrix Laboratories near Atlanta. Two days later, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Confirmatrix was founded by Khalid Satary, a convicted felon and Palestinian national that the federal government has been trying to deport for years.

In 2013, Medicare identified Confirmatrix as the most expensive urine drug testing lab in the country, charging an average of $2,406 for each Medicare patient.

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Benefis has continued to send urine drug samples to Confirmatrix for testing even after the company filed for bankruptcy. Some Benefis patients have recently been contacted by collection agencies seeking payment for urine tests costing well over $1,000 that their insurance refused to pay for. Similar tests by other labs cost only a few hundred dollars.

According to its bankruptcy filing, Confirmatrix has 152 employees in 15 different states, including one employee in Montana who apparently works on site at the Benefis pain clinic. PNN has also learned that Proove Biosciences has had employees working at the clinic. A Proove “patient engagement representative” was employed there as early as May 2016.

“We had a meeting one day and here are these people from Proove Biosciences. They told us they were doing a research project,” says Rodney Lutes, a physician assistant (PA) who was later fired by Benefis. “They wanted to come to Benefis, into the pain department, and test our patients.  We were told this would be at no cost to the patient. My understanding was that they weren’t going to charge anybody, but I found out afterwards they were charging insurance companies.

“They said providers who participated in this would get some form of payment for participating in the program and for filling out all the paperwork.  What they did is they had a technician there in the department and every day I would get a list from that technician of patients that they would like to try to include in the program.”

Lutes says he recommended the DNA test to many of his patients, but never received any money from Proove. He says some of his patients later complained that their insurance was billed for the DNA test.

“One of the things that bothered me was that I signed a lot of the papers, but they also had my supervising doc on all of those papers,” Lutes told PNN. “I also felt like she was the one that brought them (Proove) in there.”

Lutes is referring to Katrina Lewis, MD, a pain management specialist at Benefis who is listed as a member of Proove’s Medical Advisory Board.  Lewis plays a significant role at the pain clinic even though she only works there part time. 

“Dr. Lewis works for Benefis one week a month and has been instrumental in the development of our multidisciplinary approach and current protocols,” said Keri Garman, Director of Corporate Communications at Benefis.

In a statement emailed to PNN last month, Lewis said regular urine drug testing was necessary to ensure that “appropriate levels” of medication are present. Current clinic policy is that “high risk” patients should have a urine test at least once every two months.

Presence of too high of a level of opioids or other substances in the urine can make it inappropriate and unsafe to continue prescribing opioids.  Presence of none of the prescribed opioids in the urine indicates the care plan is not being followed and further prescribing is medically unnecessary,” Lewis said.

Benefis: No Kickbacks from Testing Labs

PNN has made repeated requests to Benefis to clarify its relationship with Confirmatrix and Proove, and whether Lewis or any other Benefis employees were receiving compensation from the laboratories for referring business to them. 

“Benefis and its employees, including Dr. Katrina Lewis, do not receive kickbacks from Confirmatrix or Proove. As for any questions you have regarding the lab business practices of these facilities, these would be best answered by the companies directly,” Benefis spokesman Ben Buckridge said in a statement emailed to PNN last week. 

“We take these accusations and defamatory statements against our organization and staff seriously. We appreciate your diligence on this issue.” 

In an earlier statement, a Benefis official said the DNA tests are voluntary and only done on patients if they are appropriate.

Patients have the option to decline this testing, however, it proves to be very helpful in determining treatment plans for our patients in many cases. This testing has not been readily available until recently,” said Kathy Hills, Chief Operating Officer of Benefis Medical Group.

“Genetic testing allows us to see if the patient is appropriately synthesizing specific medications and can drastically alter treatment plans, showing us that sometimes the medications are not effectively metabolizing and therefore not as effective, which is why some patients have needed high doses. Our partners in this have an extensive patient assistance program that waives many costs, and patients are not penalized or removed from opioids if they refuse to have a genetic test performed.”

But a recent copy of the clinic’s opioid policy obtained by PNN says the tests are not voluntary for everyone. 

“All patients on dosing levels at or higher than the maximum policy dose MUST be submitted for genetic testing,” the policy states. The word "must" is capitalized in the document. 

One Benefis patient who took the DNA test said Lutes recommended it.

“He said everyone was doing it and that the insurance would be billed, but if they did not pay for it then Benefis would. I think he said something about it being a $6,000 test,” she told PNN.  “To me it was a waste of time and money. The meds it said I should be taking either didn’t work, stopped working, or made me sick. And the meds I should not be taking I do just fine on.”

It is not clear whether the pain clinic's association with Proove or Confirmatrix had anything to do with Lutes’ firing in March. The 68-year old Lutes treated several hundred pain patients and was popular with many of them. 

Lutes was discharged for violating Benefis policy about record keeping, opioid dosage and urine drug testing, but feels he was “written up for violations that do not exist.” His supervising physician – Katrina Lewis – also requested removal from that role, meaning Lutes could no longer practice at Benefis as a physician assistant.

Since his dismissal, many of Lutes former patients who were on relatively high doses of opioids say their medication has been reduced or stopped entirely. One patient, whose opioid dose was cut significantly, committed suicide. Still others complain they were labeled and treated as addicts by clinic doctors and staff, and now have trouble finding new physicians in the Great Falls area. The ones who remain at Benefis say they are being told to take new tests and exams. 

Benefis says it cannot comment on the accusations because of patient and employee privacy rights.

“Unless Rodney Lutes, PA, or the patients with whom you are speaking will sign written releases allowing us to comment fully on the facts of their employment or their care, respectively, we are simply unable to engage in any further back and forth discussions.  We have provided all the information we are able given the legal limitations governing our industry,” Buckridge said.