After 16 deaths, state suspends Seattle pain doctor’s license

After 16 deaths, state suspends Seattle pain doctor’s license

EVERETT — The state has suspended the medical license of Dr. Frank D. Li, alleging over-prescribing of opioids at his Seattle Pain Center clinics, which investigators believe led to addiction, overdoses, and contributed to up to 16 deaths.

The Seattle Pain Center clinics are in Everett, Seattle, Renton, Tacoma, Poulsbo, Olympia, Vancouver and Spokane.

Li is the medical director and sole shareholder of the clinics. Li told state Department of Health investigators that the clinics treated as many as 25,000 patients.

The clinics could be characterized as “pill mills,” said Micah Matthews, deputy executive director of the Washington State Medical Commission.

“This is probably the largest such case that we’ve seen,” he said.

In addition to its action against Li, the state Medical Commission has opened investigations against all five doctors and seven physician assistants working at Seattle Pain Center clinics, Matthews said.

Complaints against 40 advanced practice registered nurses, four osteopaths, a psychologist and one chemical dependency trainee working at Seattle Pain Center have been sent to the state boards that license those health care workers, he said.

“I don’t think we know the true fallout,” he said. The state agencies working on the case are “preparing as if this is an unprecedented event,” Matthews said.

A message left for the clinic in Everett was not returned. Matthews said the clinic could continue to operate “but not forever,” because the clinics need a medical director.

The state investigation of Seattle Pain Center focused on 16 patients where acute drug intoxication was found to have either contributed to or caused their deaths. The deaths, which occurred between 2010 and 2015, included patients in King and Snohomish counties, Matthews said.

The state also investigated the deaths of two other patients, one from stroke and one from a traffic collision.

The patients ranged in age from 28 to 62. They were treated with opioid pain medications, including oxycodone and morphine.

The state alleges that the care patients received violated state rules on prescribing and treating pain patients. Concern for patient safety and welfare were routinely disregarded, state documents say.

Thomas Fain, an attorney representing Li, said on Friday that he is still reviewing the state’s allegations. “I would anticipate that we would contest the matter and try to get it overturned,” he said.

State documents say Li and clinic staff failed to consider patient issues such as mental health problems, substance abuse, and medical conditions that would indicate opiate pain medications should not be prescribed.

Dependence on powerful opiate pain medications can lead to heroin addiction, especially when prescriptions are no longer available.

As medical director, Li also failed to investigate reports of patient deaths or hospitalizations attributed to the treatment they received at Seattle Pain Center facilities, the state alleges.

Matthews said the case came to the state’s attention after the state’s Medicaid fraud unit began examining Medicaid billings and a series of patient deaths. They contacted the state’s medical commission, which licenses and investigates complaints against doctors and physician assistants.

Seattle Pain Center patients were encouraged to get medical equipment that could be billed to Medicaid, Matthews said.

The clinics were “constantly trying to churn patients through,” he said. “It was all about billing and making money.”

The state action means insurance companies may no longer pay for visits to Seattle Pain Center clinics. The state health department advises patients with unfilled prescriptions from Seattle Pain Center clinic to call their pharmacy to see if they can be filled.

Li has been a licensed physician in Washington since 2008.

This is not the first so-called pill mill that has been discovered in Snohomish County. Dr. Hieu Tu Le pleaded guilty in 2013 to running a prescription mill out of his Everett Mall Way clinic.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Health permanently revoked the medical license of Marysville physician Dr. Ann C. Kammeyer, saying she had committed unprofessional conduct by improperly prescribing opioid medications to multiple patients.

In 2012, an Everett doctor who handed out more than six times as many highly addictive painkillers as the community’s largest hospital was sentenced on to three years in federal prison.

Delbert Lee Whetstone, an osteopath who operated a pain management clinic on Evergreen Way, also agreed to forfeit more than $1.2 million that federal agents seized during their investigation.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

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