News of the Day ... in Perspective8/18/2004
Dr. Jeri Hassman sentenced to probation.
Jeri Hassman, M.D., a pain management physician entrapped by an undercover agent posing as a patient, was sentenced in federal court in Tucson, AZ, on August 16. After an exhaustive investigation, the government filed hundreds of counts against Dr. Hassman concerning a small number of patients, with each prescription constituting a separate count. If convicted on just a single count, Dr. Hassman could have been imprisoned for many decades.
A single mother with two children at home, she had little choice but to be pragmatic. The overall acquittal rate of defendants charged in federal court is less than 1%. Even if one wins, the process destroys the defendants and other charges can still be brought. Dr. Hassman felt compelled to plead guilty to four counts of being an accessory after the fact of several patients’ allegedly unlawful possession of controlled substances.
At sentencing, the Judge conceded that Dr. Hassman has been punished enough by loss of professional standing and most of her practice, as well as the destitution resulting from her enormous legal expenses. But he insisted that a lenient sentence might be an inadequate deterrent to the rest of the medical community. Although some patients do need and benefit from the prescription of opioids, he thought that problem could be replaced by the worse scourge of addiction. Under terms of the plea agreement, he had the power to sentence her to up to 6 months in prison.
The Judge was assured that physicians, as a result of Dr. Hassman’s prosecution, have become much more wary of potential patient misuse of drugs. The Arizona Medical Board is receiving inquiries about the physicians’ legal responsibility to report patients to law enforcement if they become aware of infractions such as borrowing prescriptions intended for a friend or relative. Bates Butler, Dr. Hassman’s attorney, said he felt that a deterrent effect had been achieved but that sending Dr. Hassman to prison would result in a chilling effect on medical practice.
Dr. Hassman made a compelling statement to court that illustrated how she has already suffered. She pleaded for a chance to continue practicing for the benefit of her patients, including the uninsured. The government, nevertheless, argued for five years probation, 500 hours of community service, and a fine.
The Judge decided to impose two years of probation, plus 100 hours of community service, 50 in a substance abuse center and 50 serving nonpaying patients in her office. Dr. Hassman may reapply for her DEA certification one year after the date of the plea agreement. Her conviction is not for drug dealing; thus, she will not be excluded from Medicare. However, the Judge conditioned the sentence upon this disconcerting requirement: Dr. Hassman must publish in a medical journal an exemplary letter describing the devastating consequences of her own behavior and the righteous prosecution by government, so that others may be influenced. As these prosecutions continue, who will be able to stand up for chronic pain patients?