New law puts heat on 'doctor shoppers'
By Cindy Horswell
Sunday, March 18, 2012For nine months, a 32-year-old petite redhead from Willis duped 52 area doctors into filling her shopping list for thousands of addictive pills, investigators say.
Rochelle Clark was allegedly netting more than five prescriptions a week, acquiring more than 12,800 tablets of the narcotic hydrocodone alone, prescription records showed, before her shopping spree ended with her arrest in February.
Harris County prosecutor Ryan Patrick has identified her as one of the growing number of premier "doctor shoppers" now awaiting trial under a new law that makes it a felony for a patient to fail to inform a physician of all the other practitioners prescribing controlled substances to him.
At the same time, some patients are using more than artful persuasion to develop their shopping networks. Several, such as Andrew Coleman, a 57-year-old Houston resident, are accused under the same law with the additional deception of using fake prescriptions.
Authorities said there were 85 doctors linked to Coleman's prescriptions for controlled substances (including 20,330 hydrocodone pills).
Fake prescriptions under three doctors' names - physicians who had never seen Coleman - were among those that were faxed and filled at 100 different pharmacies in Harris and Fort Bend counties from February 2009 to January 2011.
Neither Clark nor Coleman could be reached for comment. But investigators say both are examples of a new push to crack down on patients - not just the doctors and pharmacists that have made Houston a hot spot for prescription drug abuse.
Since the first of the year, Patrick estimates he has been filing at least four doctor shopping cases a week in Harris County.
The closing of dozens of so-called "pill mills" has so far not stemmed the tide of addictive drugs flowing into the eight-county Houston region, as the number of hydrocodone prescriptions climbed by 22 percent to 3.1 million last year compared to 2010. Harris County accounted for nearly one-fourth of all the hydrocodone prescriptions in the state last year, records showed.
Many of the doctor shoppers are not just addicts seeking drugs for themselves, they are also dealers, said U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's agent in-charge Anthony Scott in Houston. His agency is targeting criminals who run "crews" of doctor shoppers to keep their illegal drug enterprises running.
"We see patients obtaining thousands of pills. No way they could stay alive if they consumed that much," said Patrick, the Harris County prosecutor.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 76 percent of the 12 million Americans abusing prescription drugs are consuming drugs that were prescribed to someone else.
Catching doctor shoppers will become much easier once the state's prescription monitoring program can be accessed online this summer, authorities say. Registered doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement officers can then obtain quick feedback from the database to determine if a patient has multiple prescriptions.
Dr. C.M Schade, a Texas Pain Society director, is helping test the new online system. He was surprised to discover some of his own patients were trying to mislead him and scam the system.
"They can be very good actors. They're usually the ones you'd least suspect of perpetrating a crime," he said. "They are well trained, and there's money in it." The Department of Public Safety estimates one bottle of hydrocodone pills is worth $18,000.
Tony Aucoin, a drug and alcohol therapist in Houston, recalls how he had once been easily lured into doctor shopping. He became addicted to prescription drugs for three years following a painful dental procedure in 2006.
"The drugs made me feel good. I never thought I was getting addicted until I started needing it just to function," said Aucoin of the time when he was a graduate student. As his need intensified, a friend taught him how to doctor shop.
"I was worried at first. But then I saw how easy it was. I just had to say my 'back hurt' and then say 'ouch' when they poked around," he said. Before long, he was obtaining controlled substances from three different doctors a month.
Now helping others overcome addictions, Aucoin would like to see the Texas Legislature make it mandatory for doctors and pharmacists to check the state's online database before dispensing drugs. State and federal law enforcement authorities agree.
But Schade does not think that responsibility should be placed on the medical profession's shoulders. He would rather have the Texas Department of Public Safety, which manages the state's computerized prescription monitoring system, run scans to detect any abuses and report them.
But all agree on one thing: "Doctor shopping continues to be a serious problem and the prescription monitoring program is the best tool we have to stop it," Schade said.