Doctors Prosecuted for Opioid Prescribing Should Fight Back

(Editor’s note: In 2016, Dr. Mark Ibsen’s medical license was suspended by the Montana Board of Medical Examiners for his opioid prescribing practices. Two years later, the suspension was overturned by a judge who ruled that the board made numerous errors and deprived Ibsen of his legal right to due process.)

By Mark Ibsen, MD, Guest Columnist

The headlines are pretty typical: “60 Doctors Charged in Federal Opioid Sting.” The story that follows will include multiple damning allegations and innuendos, including a claim by prosecutors that they are “targeting the worst of the worst doctors.”

Sometimes there is a trial, but often the doctors plead guilty to lesser charges and give up their license rather than mount a lengthy and costly legal defense.

Why are doctors losing every case to their medical boards and DEA? Are there that many criminal doctors? If so, what happened to our profession?

I see a pattern emerging: A doctor sees patients and treats pain in the course of their practice. As other doctors give up prescribing opiates for fear of going to prison or losing their license, the ones left end up seeing more and more patients.


They soon become the leading prescribers of opioids in their state and become suspect just based on the volume of opioids they prescribe.

Given that law enforcement and medical board investigators usually don’t have training in statistics (or medicine), they are unable to see that the number of pain patients remains the same, but there are fewer practitioners willing to treat them.

“The Criminalization of Medicine: America’s War on Doctors” was published in 2007, but is even more relevant today.   

“Physicians have been tried and given longer prison sentences than convicted murderers; many have lost their practices, their licenses to practice medicine, their homes, their savings and everything they own,” wrote author Ronald Libby. “Some have even committed suicide rather than face the public humiliation of being treated as criminals.”

Libby wrote over a decade ago about doctors’ homes and offices being raided, DEA agents posing as pain patients to entrap them, and law enforcement task forces being created to target doctors for fraud, kickbacks and drug diversion.

Sound familiar?

I was reviewing a case about a nurse practitioner in Michigan who recently had her license suspended because she prescribed opioids “contrary to CDC guidelines” and “ranked among Michigan’s highest-volume prescribers of commonly abused and diverted controlled substances.”

This unsubstantiated crap put out by the Michigan Board of Nursing and its investigator is unethical and immoral. It should lead to a mistrial in court or dismissal at hearings. 

Fight Fire With Fire

This is an Amber alert for physicians. While pejorative headlines contaminate the discourse, the prescriber’s reputation bleeds away. The Montana Board of Medical Examiners did this in my case, and since I knew that the board was relentlessly after my license for “overprescribing” opioids, I gave up any hope of fairness.

My proposal: Lawyers representing doctors must counter the negative headlines with their own, and doctors should use whatever goodwill is left to rally their staff and patients, counteracting the pressure to testify against the doctor. 

I used what was left of my bully pulpit to save my own license and freedom. How? My assistant assembled my patients in large crowds at my hearings. I also made myself available to the media to counter the narrative put out by Mike Fanning, the board’s attorney, who went so far as to publicly question my sanity.

Fanning’s title was special assistant Attorney General, which told me the medical board works for DOJ in my state. I knew this for sure when DEA agents came to my office and tried to intimidate me.

“Doctor Ibsen, you are risking your license and your freedom by treating patients like these.”

Patients like what?

“Patients who might divert their medicine.”

Might? Isn’t that everyone? What would you have me do?

“We can’t tell you, we’re not doctors.”

My plea to doctors: Let’s reinvent our defense. The DEA and medical boards have a formula. It’s winning. 

We need a new response: Fight back and hold on. Just like with any bully, reveal their game and fight fire with fire.


Dr. Mark Ibsen continues to practice medicine in Montana, but focuses on medical marijuana as a treatment. He no longer prescribes opioids. Six of his former patients have died after losing access to Dr. Ibsen’s care, three by suicide.

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The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Medical Cannabis Saved My Life

By Tammy Malone, Guest Columnist

People are talking about the addicts who are overdosing due to the opioid epidemic. Maybe we should start talking about the people who take opioids just to be able to function in life. 

Chronic intractable pain is a terrible way to live.  I know from experience that when you live in that much pain, you get to a point where all you can see is the ultimate way out.  Chronic pain is blinding.  It blinds you from life, family, joy and happiness.  It robs you of your hopes and dreams, until you are left withering, suffering and asking yourself, "Is this all my life is ever going to consist of? Living in so much pain?"

Too many of us are forced to live this way. For some, it is just too much to bear and suicide is our only way out.  

I can honestly say I have thought of this.  I was in so much pain I was contemplating suicide. Then I found a compassionate, caring group of doctors at a Tennessee pain clinic and my life was spared.  I was given shots, acupuncture, and massage.  I started an anti-inflammatory diet that helps slow down the destruction of Lyme disease, which is breaking down the joints and bones in my body. 

I was also put on a manageable dose of the opioid medication Demerol.  For 6 years, I had my  dreams back. I could see a future filled with family, friends,  joy and happiness. 

My body is still breaking down and nothing is going to change that.  I'm 53 and have the spine of a 90 year old.  I've shrunk over half an inch due to the discs deteriorating in my back. I've had 3 discs removed and my spine fused. Both knees are bone on bone.  My hip joints have deteriorated and my shoulders are blown out. I have fluid pockets in many of the joints, so it's not only painful but difficult to move. 

This destruction is not going to stop or get better, and I don't care how many Tylenol you throw at it,  it won't touch the pain.  But the pain management clinic helped me exist.  The opioids helped me function  and have a life beyond the blinding pain.  It gave me another 2,372 days with my family and friends. 



Then came the War on Opioids. My doctor discussed the issues this war was having on his practice and what it meant for his patients. What it was going to ultimately mean for me.  To say I was in a panic is an understatement.  The thought of returning to a life in that much pain was unfathomable. 

I knew I had about 6 months before the do-gooders and Big Brother were going to push my doctor to start tapering me down. We discussed the other options, which we had or were already doing, and I cried.  I knew what was coming.  An unacceptable existence. 

This was the same time my parents had talked about getting me and my husband a plane ticket to Montana for a mini-vacation at our family cabin in the Rockies.  I really thought it was going to be my last family vacation. Because in a year,  I wouldn't be around. Suicide was already in my forethought. 

Although the stress of it all had begun to increase my pain levels, I agreed to go.  The night I stepped off the plane, my ankles swelled to the size of my calves and I couldn't walk. In 11 days at the family cabin, I lost 22 pounds due to inflammation,  elevation and the dryness of the mountain air. But I enjoyed the vacation and was happy I went. 

I also learned that Montana was a medical marijuana state.

Over the next couple of weeks back home in Tennessee, I asked my entire team of doctors, seven in all, what they thought about medical cannabis. With the exception of my neurologist, they all agreed it might be an option.  So we sold our dream property, got rid of our horses, sold everything in Tennessee and moved to Montana.  

Starting Medical Cannabis

I'd like to say everything is 100% better, but that wouldn't be accurate.  Moving to Montana and starting medical cannabis has been a challenge.  After an incredibly stressful time of trying to find doctors who would even look at my medical records, I was able to find a compassionate doctor in Helena named Dr. Mark Ibsen.  He went over my medical history, looked at my extensive list of medications, and reviewed my medical folders, MRI's and x-rays. After an hour of discussion, he agreed to take me on.  I cried with relief.  He was my lifeline.

It took 6 months to taper me off my pain meds and reduce the other 44 pills I took everyday down to 7.  Trying to find the right strain of medical cannabis hasn't been easy. I don't like to feel high or drugged (Demerol never made me feel that way), and finding the proper dosage of cannabis has been a challenge. 

Cannabis doesn't relieve the pain completely. While Demerol kept the pain manageable at a 3-4 level, cannabis keeps me at a level 6, which is uncomfortable most days.  Occasionally,  when I overdo things,  I can spend 24 to 36 hours at a level 8.5. Those are the days I wish I was still taking the opioids or at least had them as an option.

All in all, I was lucky.  I was lucky my parents thought to give me a vacation that unexpectedly showed me there was another medical option. I was lucky my husband agreed that we should sell everything and try Montana.  I was also lucky to find a compassionate doctor. It saved my life. 

But I also think about all the other pain patients who do not have options.  The "War on Opioids" has become a "War on Pain Patients."  I did some research and found the opioid overdose numbers being publicized include all overdoses from heroin.  These are addicts who are dying, not pain patients.

Not too long ago, I had a supposed friend call me an addict because she had preconceived idea of how I was living my life.  That taking pain meds to function made me the same as her opioid-addicted son, someone who did whatever it took to get his fix.  She hurt me and it cost a friendship, but it also made me see that too many of us are getting labeled.

Things need to change.  We need to be heard and we need to tell our stories.  We don't need to have people in Washington, DC leave us with suicide as the only option of living a pain free life. Too many of us are dying as it is.  Please leave our pain management doctors alone as they are our lifeline to the future. 

tell us your story.jpg

Tammy Malone lives with complex late-stage Lyme disease and Bartonella, a bacterial infection of the blood vessels. Both are spread by ticks. Tammy was first bitten by a tick in 2008.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Suspension of Dr. Ibsen's Medical License Reversed

By Pat Anson, Editor

A Montana district court judge has reversed the suspension of Dr. Mark Ibsen's medical license, ruling that the state medical board made numerous errors when it suspended Ibsen’s license in 2016 for allegedly overprescribing pain medication.

Judge James Reynolds said the Montana Medical Board violated Ibsen’s right to due process by failing to allow expert witnesses to testify in his defense during board hearings. The board also rejected the findings of its own hearing examiner, who said Ibsen’s standard of patient care was sufficient.

“It is analogous to the selection of a jury in a civil case and then when the verdict comes in against a party, that party asking for the selection of another jury. Except in this case, it is even more striking because it is the agency who selected the hearing examiner,” Judge Reynolds ruled.

“They screwed up,” Ibsen attorney John Doubek told the Independent Record. “I think it’s a pretty sharp rebuke to a decision that was totally off-base.

“The sad thing is my client has been under their thumb now for two years. He can’t move his practice because he has this black mark against his reputation and against his license, so he’s been unable to practice medicine and this guy is a good doctor.”



Ibsen first came under investigation in 2013, when he was accused of over-prescribing opioid medication by a disgruntled former employee at his Helena medical clinic.

“I’m a little stunned that it happened,” Ibsen said of the judge’s decision. “I’m mostly angry. It could have been resolved in 10 minutes, instead of five years.”  

Although the suspension of Ibsen’s license was stayed while he appealed the board’s ruling, his professional reputation was so damaged that pharmacists refused to fill his prescriptions and he was forced to close his clinic. Ibsen’s former patients also suffered. He says three committed suicide (including the recent death of Jennifer Adams) and three others died of causes likely related to the stress of their pain not being treated. Montana has the highest suicide rate in the country.

Ibsen told PNN that Montana has become a virtual “wasteland” for pain care, because many of the state’s doctors fear being prosecuted or losing their licenses for prescribing opioids.  Several of Ibsen's patients were former patients of Dr. Chris Christensen, a Ravalli county physician convicted of negligent homicide after two of his patients died from overdoses.

“There was a clear time there I was crying for help. I was just inundated by these pain patients that my colleagues weren’t dealing with. And I was just sort of shocked at the cruelty of the way I was treated and the cruelty of the way pain patients were being treated,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of compassion for people who don’t feel like they belong in the medical model. I’ve been shunned. They’ve been shunned.”

And after five years of legal battles, the only drug Ibsen will prescribe now is medical marijuana.

“It terrifies me to consider opening up a clinic again. They might come after me,” Ibsen said. “Things could change, but I have nothing in the on-deck circle.  I don’t have anything planned. It was just not good for me to plan anything.”

Death of Pain Patient Blamed on DEA Raid

By Pat Anson, Editor

The Montana pain community is in mourning over the tragic death of Jennifer Adams, a 41-year old Helena woman who suffered from intractable chronic pain. The Lewis and Clark County coroner has not yet released a cause of death, but friends say Adams died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound April 25.

Adams, a former police officer and mother of an 11-year old boy, lived with severe back pain from Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) and arachnoiditis, two painful and incurable diseases in her spine.

Friends say in her final months Adams suffered from extreme anxiety – fearing that her relatively high dose of opioid pain medication would be reduced or stopped by doctors.

“Jennifer had horrible anxiety that was eating her alive,” says Kate Lamport, a close friend who also has arachnoiditis. “She hadn’t lost her meds. But the fear of it drove her crazy. Every day she was so afraid.

“She was beautiful, inside and out. Her little boy was her everything. And I know she felt like the walls were just closing around her.”

Adams was a patient of Dr. Forest Tennant, a prominent California pain physician, whose home and office were raided last November by agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration. A DEA search warrant alleged that Tennant must be running a drug trafficking organization because many of his patients came from out-of-state and were on high doses of opioid medication.



Tennant, who has not been charged with a crime and denies any wrongdoing, recently announced plans to retire and close his clinic, in part because of the DEA investigation. Tennant is a revered figure in the pain community because of his willingness to see patients like Adams who have intractable pain from rare diseases like arachnoiditis.

“She’s a patient I saw in consultation. She was on a very good (pain) regimen, had a very good nurse practitioner and had good support,” said Tennant. “It’s a tragic situation. She was a lovely person. She was ill, no question about it.”

Several of Adams’ friends and fellow patients told PNN that the DEA raid frightened her. Like many others in the pain community, Adams feared losing access to opioid medication because many doctors have cut back on prescribing or stopped treating pain altogether.  



“There’s more (suicides) coming. I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to that have a backup plan. We are the unintended consequences of the DEA’s actions,” said Lamport.

“Every day you get online and there’s another chronic pain patient that took their life. There’s another 20 that lost their medication. And she knew she couldn’t be a mom or work without it. And she didn’t want to be a burden. She was very prideful.”

“Before the raid she was very positive, keep fighting, that type of attitude. And the last couple of months she hasn't really been talking to anyone really consistently like she was,” said Heather Ramsdell. “I would characterize her mood as somber and scared with what's going on in this world and with her pain progressing, worrying about care.”

“She did not deserve to die. It’s just ridiculous. An entirely preventable loss of life. I think she was just totally freaked out over what was happening,” said Gary Snook. “We’re not drug addicts. We’re just sick people.”

“I think that Jennifer is collateral damage in that heinous DEA raid on Dr. Tennant,” says Dr. Mark Ibsen, a Helena physician who used to treat Adams. “We have a way to prevent these suicides and we’re completely ignoring it. Treating the patients in pain would prevent these suicides.”

Tennant does not believe Adams’ death is connected to the DEA raid.

“People who want to make that claim, that’s just simply false,” Tennant told PNN. “I think she was upset by the raid, like a lot of people, but I don’t believe you can make any assumption that there’s any connection.

“People have a lot of complaints about the government, but I think in this case and I want to make it abundantly clear, there is no connection to her pain care, her practitioners, or the DEA. This appears to be an independent, random event in a state that’s got a very, very high suicide rate.”

Adams’ last appointment with Tennant was in January. He said she was responding well to treatment and did not have a return appointment.

‘Disgusted’ by DEA Search Warrant

PNN has obtained a copy of an email that Adams sent to one of Tennant’s lawyers. Adams wrote that she was “truly disgusted” by the DEA raid and the allegations made against Tennant. Her patient records were among those seized by DEA agents. The search warrant claimed patients must be selling their opioid medication and funneling the profits back to Tennant. 

“My intention was and is to let you know a bit about myself and let you know that I am truly disgusted after reading the search warrant. I am NOT a drug dealer! I am not part of a drug cartel. I do not provide kickbacks to Dr. Tennant and I do not share my prescriptions. This whole situation has turned my life upside down once again,” Adams wrote. 

“It needs to stop. Legally speaking, someone has got to put an end to this obscene attack on patients with intractable pain, in particular; Adhesive Arachnoiditis.”

Adams said she developed adhesive arachnoiditis – a chronic inflammation of spinal nerves that causes them to stick together – after a failed back surgery and dozens of failed epidural injections. She also suffered a stroke during the birth of her son because of a botched epidural.

Before her career in law enforcement was cut short by chronic pain, Adams was a police officer in Helena and the first female deputy in Rosebud County, Montana.  She graduated third in her class at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy.


She was proud of her career and felt the DEA raid unfairly stigmatized her and other Tennant patients. 

“I also have had all my accomplishments stained!” she wrote. “I have had to fight day after day to survive the devastation of this ever-changing disease! Please do not dismiss me.”

Donations to a college trust fund for Jennifer's son, Joshua "Tuff" Adams, can be made to First Interstate Bank, 3401 N. Montana Avenue, Helena, MT 59602. You can also call the bank at (406) 457-7171.

Patient Suicide Blamed on Montana Pain Clinic

By Pat Anson, Editor

A 54-year old Montana man who apparently committed suicide earlier this month was a patient at a Great Falls pain clinic accused of mistreating patients and poorly managing their chronic pain. Bryan Spece was found dead in his Lewistown home on May 3.

“From what we know, about two weeks before his death, they had cut his pain pills back significantly. We’re not sure the exact amount. We’re trying to get ahold of his medical records,” said a family member. “When they called and told us that he’d been found with a gunshot wound, we thought someone had attacked him. Suicide was not even on our charts anywhere.”

"He was the last person anyone would have thought to take his own life. He was just not that guy," another family member said. "I know he was in a lot of pain and in a very dark spot."



Until recently, Spece was one of several hundred patients being treated at the Benefis Pain Management Center by Rodney Lutes, a physician assistant (PA). The 68-year old Lutes was discharged by Benefis in March for unexplained reasons and the care of his patients was transferred to other providers at the clinic.

Many of Lutes' former patients – including some who were on relatively high doses of opioid pain medication – say they are now being “bullied” and treated like drug addicts by Benefis doctors and clinic staff. Their prescriptions for pain medication have been drastically reduced or stopped entirely. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a "go slow" approach when patients are weaned or tapered to minimize symptoms of opioid withdrawal. The CDC says a "reasonable starting point" would be 10% of the original dose per week. Patients who have been on opioids for a long time should have even slower tapers of 10% a month, according to the CDC.

The Department of Veterans Affairs recommends a taper of 5% to 20% every four weeks, although in some cases the VA says an initial rapid taper of 20% to 50% a day is needed

Bryan Spece's dose may have been reduced as much 70 percent.

"I talked to him a few days before he died and he said they had cut him from 100 milligrams of oxycodone a day to 30. He was not doing well," a relative told PNN.

“He was one of my patients that I saw routinely. He was doing very well on the regimen I had him on,” said Lutes, who treated Spece for about three years and never saw signs of depression.

“My suspicion is that, like the rest of my patients, he got totally slammed at this pain clinic at Benefis and they probably took all his medicines away,” Lutes said. “Right now I am so angry about this happening. This was a good guy.”

According to his obituary, Spece was a gun collector, Marine Corps veteran, Oakland Raiders fan and belonged to a motorcycle club. Friends and family called him “Bonz.”

“He was a very loud fun loving kind of guy you always knew when Bonz walked into a room,” reads the obituary published in the Helena Independent Record.

But recently some noticed that Spece was depressed about his inability to work regularly because of chronic pain from carpal tunnel syndrome and an old back injury.

“He was having money issues with not being able to work as often because of the pain and with having his pain pills cut back. He was just very stressed, constantly, about it,” said a family member, who believes Benefis is "100%" responsible for Spece's death.

“The police found several text messages on his phone. He was talking to his friends there in Lewistown, stating ‘Come get my guns. I’m in so much pain, I might do something stupid.’ And then he’d laugh it off. So nobody thought he was really thinking about ending his life.”

"We extend our condolences to the family during this difficult time," Benefis spokesman Ben Buckridge said in a statement. Buckridge said Benefis could not comment any further because of patient and employee privacy rights.

“I lay awake wondering how many Bryans are also laying awake at the same time and I pray to God to please let them know that we are here for them,” says Re Ann Rothwell, a former patient of Lutes who claims Benefis dropped her “like a dirty diaper.”

Rothwell has organized a support group for Lutes’ patients and has reached about 100 of them so far. The group has formed an active online community and is trying to locate hundreds of other former Lutes' patients to offer them support. Rothwell worries there could be more suicides.

“I truly feel that we failed in the case of Bryan Spece and perhaps several others who have taken their lives because of Benefis' actions. They felt so alone and in despair that suicide was the only answer. We just do not know about them yet.  It truly breaks my heart,” she said in an email. “We just need to figure out how to reach those folks. Perhaps Bryan's death will help us find a few more folks on the brink, who we can pull back with love, support and hugs.”

In April, a disgruntled pain patient burned down a doctor's home near Great Falls, held the doctor's wife at gunpoint and killed himself during a standoff with police. David Herron was not a patient at the pain clinic, but suffered from chronic back pain and apparently had a long-standing grievance with the doctor, an orthopedic surgeon for Benefis.

The pain clinic is part of Benefis Health System, a non-profit community-based health organization that operates a hospital and provides a wide variety of medical services in Great Falls, a city of over 58,000 people in north central Montana. With over 3,000 physicians and other employees, Benefis is the largest employer in the area outside of government.

In a statement emailed to Pain News Network last week, a Benefis pain management specialist outlined the clinic’s policy about opioid medication.

“Our clinic does not suddenly discontinue opioid prescriptions for patients unless we feel it is unsafe to continue prescribing them,” said Katrina Lewis, MD. “We know so much more now about how these drugs work than we did 20 years ago. The practice of medicine, procedures, and guidelines change over time, and we’re certainly seeing an evolution in how we care for people with chronic pain.

We are following evidenced-based practice and recommendations of reputable pain societies in approaching the care we provide. We recognize that opioids absolutely have a place in the management of chronic pain for some patients. Our focus is to treat each patient individually with use of risk stratification and evaluation of patient pathology and co-morbidities.”

“Dear Valued Patient”

But the form letters sent by Benefis to hundreds of Rodney Lutes’ patients in March could hardly be described as treating “each patient individually.” Patients were notified that Lutes was no longer practicing at the pain clinic, that they were being reassigned to new providers, and that their prescriptions would probably be changed. They were also told not to complain.

“Your new provider will do a thorough evaluation of all your medications and will likely make changes that he or she feels are in your best interests,” a form letter with the salutation “Dear Valued Patient” states. “Please be aware that arguing or complaining about changes in your prescriptions will not alter your clinician’s care plan.” 

“The prescriptions you will be given may not be what you are used to. It will be what is appropriate for your care,” another form letter says. “Verbal or written complaints to staff and management will not result in a change to your prescription.”

As PNN has reported, some patients also received letters stating that “all care providers” in the Great Falls area had been made aware of the changes at Benefis and “with what is going on with PA Lutes’ patients.” Many of those patients are now having trouble finding new doctors and feel they’ve been branded as addicts and drug seekers.

“We do our best to care for our patients and regret that this transition has been difficult for some. We realize we have opportunities to improve our communication with patients and will be working on that as a team moving forward. We are always looking at new ways to improve the patient experience, and we value patient feedback,” Nikki Phillips, Office Manager at the Benefis Pain Clinic, said in last week’s emailed statement.

What’s happening at Benefis is a microcosm of what’s happening all over the country. Patients are being abruptly weaned off opioids or being abandoned by doctors and pain clinics that are fearful of running afoul of the CDC’s “voluntary” prescribing guidelines, the DEA, or their own medical liability insurers.  Some providers are steering patients toward surgeries or costly “interventional” procedures that they don’t want.

At PNN, we hear regularly from chronic pain patients who were able to lead stable and productive lives for years on relatively high doses of opioids – a medical treatment that many are now denied and are told doesn't work. Many pain sufferers are in despair, increasingly disabled, and having suicidal thoughts.

Until the needs of those patients are taken into consideration and appropriately balanced with society's need to prevent addiction, there will be more Bryan Speces and more grieving families.

“This man was the most happy-go-lucky man. He adored his grandchildren. He was a good time, all of the time. If he hadn’t been in so much pain, I don’t think he would have had a negative thought,” a family member told us.

“He lost a sister 12 years ago to suicide and he was always so broken up about that. He’s always said he would never do that.”

Spece’s death is still classified as a homicide because his autopsy report is incomplete. The Fergus County coroner is still awaiting results from toxicology tests.

Montana Urine Tests Sent to Bankrupt Drug Lab

By Pat Anson, Editor

Imagine getting an unexpected medical bill for over $1,500 that your insurance won’t cover. You can’t afford to pay it, have already missed several weeks of work due to chronic back pain, and you’re worried about losing your job.

That’s the dilemma faced by a Montana woman, one of the patients at a Great Falls pain clinic who are getting unusually large bills for urine drug testing at a laboratory over 2,000 miles away in Georgia. 

“I spoke to my insurance about it and they told me that there are labs in Montana that could have done the same thing and would have been covered by my insurance. She asked me, why they would go to a Georgia lab?” said the patient, who asked that we not reveal her identity.

The lab in question is Confirmatrix Laboratory, a financially troubled company near Atlanta that specializes in urine drug testing.

For the last two years, Confirmatrix has conducted drug screens for the Benefis Pain Management Center, which is part of Benefis Health System, a non-profit community-based health organization that operates a hospital and provides other medical services in Great Falls.

As PNN has reported, some current and former patients at the Benefis pain clinic believe they are being unfairly labeled and treated as addicts. Many are having their opioid doses reduced or stopped completely. All are required to take regular drug tests to prove they’re not abusing their pain medication.

“For the safety of our patients, regular urine drug screens are conducted to ensure the appropriate levels of prescribed medications, and only those medications, are present,” says Katrina Lewis, MD, a pain management specialist at Benefis.  “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.”

Urine drug testing is not uncommon at pain clinics, but the selection of Confirmatrix is. The company was founded by Khalid Satary, a convicted felon and Palestinian national that the federal government has been trying to deport for years.

Satary was arrested in 2001 and served more than three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to running a counterfeit CD operation in the Atlanta area valued at $50 million. At the time, it was the largest counterfeit music case in U.S. history, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Khalid and jordan satary (instagram photo)

Khalid and jordan satary (instagram photo)

Shortly after his release from prison, Satary founded Confirmatrix, Nue Medical Consulting and GNOS Medical, a medical billing firm, and then transferred his interests in the companies over to his son Jordan, a recent high school graduate.

The Journal Constitution reported in 2014 that Satary was subject to a federal deportation order, but immigration officials were unable to find a country willing to accept him. He still apparently lives in the U.S.

On November 2nd of last year, the FBI and the Georgia Department of Health and Human Services served search warrants at Confirmatrix and GNOS Medical, and agents removed documents from both facilities.

The agencies have not said what prompted the raids and no charges have been filed against either company.

Just two days after the search warrants were served, Confirmatrix filed for Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy protection, with Satary’s son Jordan the largest shareholder to sign the petition in the Northern District Court of Georgia. GNOS Medical is listed as one of the creditors that Confirmatrix owes money to.

“Although historically very profitable,” Confirmatrix CEO Ann Durham told the court the company “began experiencing financial troubles when recent changes to Medicare’s reimbursement rates resulted in a decrease (in) revenue from its toxicology business.”

Drug testing has indeed been a very profitable business for Confirmatrix and other drug labs. A 2013 study by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) listed Confirmatrix as the most expensive drug lab in the country, collecting an average of $2,406 from Medicare for each patient tested, compared to the national average of $751. The bills from Confirmatrix were high because the company ran an average of nearly 120 different drug screens on each patient, far more than any other drug lab.

These and other abusive billing practices, not only by Confirmatrix but other drug labs such as Millennium Health, finally caused Medicare to lower its reimbursement rates for drug testing.

Millennium filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015, soon after paying a $256 million dollar fine to settle fraud and kickback charges, and to reimburse the government for unnecessary urine and genetic tests.

Under its Chapter 11 filing, Confirmatrix is still able to conduct business and perform lab tests, but it is exploring options for a possible sale of the company or a restructuring “to focus its operations on the blood testing business.” 

The company said it has 152 employees in 15 different states, including one employee in Montana who apparently works at the Benefis pain clinic in Great Falls.

All about the Benjamins.jpg

“They had a gal who was there every day, I assume working there full time, and she was responsible for collecting the samples, processing them, and shipping them off to the lab,” said Rodney Lutes, a physician assistant who was discharged by Benefis in March. 

Benefis did not respond to inquiries from PNN about whether a Confirmatrix employee works at the pain clinic or if Benefis receives a commission or compensation from Confirmatrix for doing business with the company. According to clinic policy, patients on high doses of opioids "should have a minimum of one urine drug test every two months."

In a statement, a Benefis official said Confirmatrix performs a valuable service and “waives many costs.”

“The company we have partnered with has an extensive patient assistance program, which is part of the reason they were selected. That company was selected two years ago because it was one of the few labs nationwide that offered quantitative and qualitative testing AND patient assistant programs. This company does not send its patients to collections for an inability to pay a bill,” said Kathy Hill, Chief Operating Officer at Benefis Medical Group.

But some Benefis patients are getting letters from collection agencies demanding payment for Confirmatrix drug screens that cost well over $1,000, the same tests that Medicare is charged about $150 for under its new reimbursement rates. A call to Confirmatrix for comment was not returned.

Other patients say they are getting bills for drug tests they’ve already paid for, and that Benefis has lost some of their billing and medical records. Still other patients are surprised to learn they may be legally responsible for drug tests that their insurance company refused to pay for.  

“Confirmatrix is out of network, hence I am stuck with the bill unless Benefis writes it off,” said one woman, a chronic pain sufferer for over 30 years, whose opioid dose was recently reduced substantially. “In the last 6 weeks I have been dropped to one third of the dosage I was on with intentions that I will be dropped even more. I have no desire to live, because this is not living.”

In April, a suicidal patient at Benefis Health System burned down his doctor's home and killed himself during a standoff with police. David Herron was not a patient at the Benefis pain clinic, but suffered from chronic back pain and apparently had a long-standing grievance with his doctor, an orthopedic surgeon.

The incident prompted Benefis to upgrade security procedures at its facilities, including training employees to handle active shooter situations, according to the Great Falls Tribune, which reported that "danger presents itself in the form of patients who are drug addicted looking for an early prescription."

Patients Allege Mistreatment at Montana Pain Clinic

By Pat Anson, Editor

A Montana pain clinic is under fire from patients for abruptly stopping their opioid medication, forcing them to take expensive drug tests, and steering them towards invasive and potentially dangerous procedures.

Some former patients at the Benefis Pain Management Center in Great Falls also allege they have been unfairly labeled as addicts, which has made it difficult for them to find new doctors.

“I’ve never been treated so badly in my life as I have at Benefis, to the point that I terminated my care with them, because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be called an addict and a junkie anymore,” says Tami Duncan, a 50-year old woman who suffers from chronic back pain.

“I’m not going back. I am done with them,” says another former patient. “It’s like I was a junkie just looking for my next fix. And that’s not the case at all.”

“You become terrified of who you are going to see next and what they are going to say and do to you,” said a current patient. “The fear of losing my job and not to mention my sanity. The fear that I am going to be labeled an addict if I don’t do what they tell me to.”

“They do not care. They do not know their patients. They do not review the records,” another current patient said. “There is so much more. Billing errors, rarely treated like a person, the wait to see doctors, and then 15 minutes (with them) and you are gone.”

The Benefis pain clinic is part of Benefis Health System, a non-profit community-based health organization that operates a hospital and provides a wide variety of medical services in Great Falls, a city of over 58,000 people in north central Montana. With over 250 physicians and about 3,000 other employees, Benefis is the largest employer in the area outside of government.

“We have some of the finest nurses and Physician Pain Management specialists, with experience second to none. This experience combined with their compassion, provide a tremendous supportive atmosphere. Our pain management team aims to help people reduce and cope with pain,” Benefis says on its website.

Some patients disagree, saying Benefis doctors are quick to label a patient as non-compliant, which has led to patients being discharged from the clinic. In a rural state such as Montana, where options for pain care are limited, that is not a threat to be taken lightly.

“Any questions or requests can be seen as combative. To try and protect ourselves we were recording our appointments. Somehow it was found out and there are now signs everywhere stating no recording or photos,” a patient told PNN.

“We are not allowed to have anyone come into the appointment with us. I am being bounced around to different providers. There is no stability. I am still receiving meds but at a fraction of what they were. To say that I am hurting would be an understatement.”

“Our clinic does not suddenly discontinue opioid prescriptions for patients unless we feel it is unsafe to continue prescribing them,” said Katrina Lewis, MD, a Benefis pain management specialist. “We have patients that have been on pretty high doses of opioids for many years but are not experiencing much relief from pain anymore and their quality of life is suffering significantly.  



“We have to do what is medically responsible and safe for our patients. Opioids are incredibly powerful drugs. Given the choice between a patient potentially dying and a patient going into withdrawal, we have to pick withdrawal.”

In an age of opioid hysteria and misleading headlines about an overdose epidemic fueled by painkillers, pain patients around the country – including many who have been stable and compliant on opioid medication for years – are seeing their doses cutback or eliminated. Some have been discharged by doctors who are leery of scrutiny by the DEA and no longer want to treat chronic pain.

What sets the disgruntled patients at Benefis apart from everyone else is that they have formed a support group for each other. And some are speaking out publicly against a provider they feel has shamed and abandoned them. For this story, PNN interviewed over a dozen current and former patients, including some who asked to remain anonymous.

Physician Assistant Fired

Many of the problems at the Benefis pain clinic can be traced back to the firing of Rodney Lutes, a popular 68-year old physician assistant (PA) who – until he was let go -- was treating as many as 1,000 pain patients.  



“I was thunderstruck. It totally blindsided me. I thought I was doing everything I could for the patients,” says Lutes about his firing in early March.

Lutes was told he was “no longer a good fit” at the clinic and that his position was being eliminated. He believes the real reason was that some of his patients were on high doses of opioids that exceeded clinic policy.

“They didn’t come to me and say, ‘Hey Rod, you need to fall in line here and start reducing these people.’ There was no warning whatsoever,” said Lutes. “The majority of the patients were doing very well. You always have some patients who aren’t doing well and you try to adjust their medications. I had a number of those. But otherwise I felt that the patients were doing very well on the doses they were on.”

“We respect our employees’ privacy rights and consequently cannot comment on the details of Rodney Lutes employment with Benefis,” says Keri Garman, Director of Corporate Communications at Benefis.

There is no record of any disciplinary action against Lutes by Montana’s Board of Medical Examiners. He has been licensed as a PA in the state since 1991.

“He’s compassionate and understanding. I’ve never met anybody else like him in my life,” says Tami Duncan, a patient of Lutes for 20 years. “And Benefis is crucifying that man, along with his patients.”

Duncan was on relatively high doses of oxycodone and MS-Contin for chronic back pain caused by herniated and bulging discs, arthritis and fibromyalgia. She’s also had as many as 60 epidural injections, nerve blocks and other "interventional" procedures, which not only failed to stop her back pain, but may have given her adhesive arachnoiditis, a progressive and chronic inflammation of spinal nerves that she was recently diagnosed with.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m standing in a pot of hot boiling water all day,” says Duncan. The first thing she was told by her new doctor at Benefis was that he was taking her off opioids.

“He comes in and didn’t even look at my files, didn’t even look at my record. And he told me, ‘Well Mrs. Duncan, the game plan is we’re taking you off all your medications and then we’ll terminate your care.’” she recalled. “He didn’t know anything about what was wrong with me. Didn’t know I had nerve conduction tests done to show all the nerve damage I have in both of my legs. He basically came out and said, ‘All you patients all need to go into treatment. You’re addicts.’"

“There are many scenarios that may warrant discontinuation of a particular regimen for the benefit of the patient.  Opioids can have many negative side effects for patients,” said Dr. Lewis in a lengthy statement for PNN prepared by Benefis. “We understand that this can be unsettling for patients who have been with a provider for a long period of time and who are accustomed to their care plan.”

Duncan started looking for a new pain doctor and immediately ran into problems. When she visited a pain clinic in her hometown of Havre, she was turned away without an exam or review of her medical records.

“The RN proceeded to tell me that I was a junkie, those are her words, that I was an addict and the only thing that was wrong with me is that I needed to go to treatment,” she said. “I’ve called all over the state trying to find a different pain doctor. Nobody will take me. Benefis has called every doctor in the state of Montana saying not to take any of Lutes’ patients.”

Duncan cites a letter she received from Benefis, which states: “All care providers in our community have been made aware of the changes in our clinic and with what is going on with PA Lutes’ patients.”

It is our standard practice to send a note to referring physicians within our own health system and community to let them know of changes to the providers practicing in our clinic.  The letters never indicate the reason a person is no longer with our organization,” Kathy Hill, Benefis’ Chief Operating Officer said in the statement. “Community providers had many patients calling with concerns about whether they would be able to get in with a new provider soon enough to avoid a lapse in their medications.

“Whether or not to prescribe opioids to any patient is at the discretion of the provider. Providers were not urged either way.”

‘Nobody Will See Pain Patients’

Regardless of the reason, many former patients of Lutes are having trouble finding new doctors, a not uncommon experience in rural areas where healthcare choices are limited.

“Nobody in Great Falls will see any pain patients. I’m just sitting here in limbo doing nothing but being in pain,” said a former patient who decided to leave Benefis after her opioid medication was stopped. The doctor who replaced Lutes persuaded her to have an epidural, a decision she now regrets.  

“They’re forcing everybody to get injections,” says Adrienne Barnoski, another former patient. She and her husband Joseph, who has severe back pain, had been treated by Lutes for years.

“I’m not going to have any injections on my back after what my husband has gone through. It sometimes makes things worse,” she said.

Epidural injections have been used for decades to relieve pain during childbirth, but in recent years injections of a steroid into the epidural space around the spinal cord have increasingly been used to treat back pain.  The shots have become a common and sometimes lucrative procedure at pain clinics, where costs vary from as little as $445 to $2,000 per injection. Critics say the injections are risky, overused and often a waste of money.

“An epidural steroid injection is an invasive procedure. It has its risks. And I think a patient always has the right to decline an invasive procedure,” says Lutes. “I’ve had a couple of patients tell me (that they were told) to do epidural steroid injections and if they didn’t do the injections they were no longer going to be prescribed any medications. To me, that’s kind of like blackmail.  

“My patients are being treated very, very poorly. It’s horrible. I’ve had calls from patients or their spouses, very concerned the patient was going to commit suicide. It just scares me to death. And these were patients that were functionally doing great. And now they’re being told, sorry, we’re taking your medication away from you.”

Benefis says it does not pressure patients into having invasive procedures, but admits there could have been communication problems between doctors and their patients.

"This is not a policy or an expectation in any way. While we expect patients to be active participants in getting better, there is never a mandatory procedure,” said Nikki Phillips, BSN, Clinic Office Manager at Benefis Neurosciences. “We do our best to care for our patients and regret that this transition has been difficult for some. We realize we have opportunities to improve our communication with patients and will be working on that as a team moving forward.”

“The decision of whether or not to prescribe opioids to a patient is in no way related to their decision to have or not have other interventional procedures,” said Dr. Lewis. “Unfortunately there are some patients who come into the clinic with a preconceived notion that opioids are the answer for them, whether because of past practice within the medical community or other reasons, and overcoming that preconceived notion can be challenging.”

A major challenge for the patients who remain at Benefis is paying for their urine drug tests, which can cost as much as $1,500 and are not always covered by insurance.  For the past two years, Benefis has been working with a drug laboratory over 2,000 miles away in Georgia, one with a questionable past and a very uncertain future. For more on that part of the story, click here.