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Reckless Rx in the desert?

Pharmacist's suit reveals allegations of doctors overprescribing drugs at the hospital tied to the Betty Ford Center.

July 29, 2007|William Heisel | Times Staff Writer

When the Highway Patrol found Dr. Wade Grindle, he had just crashed a rented SUV, rolling it over in Indian Wells.

It was 8 o'clock on a Monday morning and Grindle, a pain management specialist, had been drinking and taking painkillers, according to an officer's report. He was cited for driving under the influence and using controlled substances without the proper prescription. Last summer, he pleaded guilty to reckless driving, drawing a fine.

Less than two months after the first incident, Grindle, clad in his doctor's smock, was arrested by Riverside County sheriff's deputies and booked on suspicion of DUI and possession of narcotics, according to a sheriff's spokesman. In that case, which is still under investigation, officers reported finding a hypodermic needle and fentanyl, a painkiller, in the car.

All of this might have gone down as the story of one troubled physician. But Grindle's woes turned out to be a postscript to a larger tale: It involved allegedly reckless prescribing and dispensing of drugs at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, home to one of the best-known addiction treatment clinics in the country, the Betty Ford Center.

The story came to light in a little-known lawsuit resolved in January. In it, a former Eisenhower pharmacist contended that Grindle and two other doctors had been prescribing dangerous amounts of addictive drugs to chronic-pain patients through the Eisenhower outpatient pharmacy, located minutes from the renowned clinic devoted to battling addiction.

According to court filings and trial testimony, the doctors, who at various times ran busy practices next to Eisenhower, prescribed so many drugs that patients became hooked. One of them, an operating-room nurse at Eisenhower, later sought treatment at Betty Ford, according to testimony by the pharmacist, Terry Blasingame.

In December, she told the jury: "There became a point where the quantities, the frequencies [of painkiller prescriptions] were so extraordinary that I feared that if there was an automobile accident, if there was an intentional or accidental overdose ... that the government agencies would come into our pharmacy and say, 'What in the world were you ... pharmacists thinking about?' "

Grindle did not return messages seeking comment.

Hospital officials generally denied Blasingame's allegations. They said the pharmacy has a good record handling complaints.

"I cannot speak to what happened before.... But I am proud of what we're doing now," said Lyle Matthews, the director of pharmacy services.

Eisenhower Chief Executive Aubrey Serfling said he had not been aware of Blasingame's allegations until the trial began in November.

When told about letters she and her attorney had written to him as early as 2001 detailing her concerns, Serfling said he did not recall seeing them. He did say that all hospitals have to guard against over-dispensing narcotics, and the issue needs to be addressed at a statewide or national level.

"It's a major problem, and a lot of this is due to patients working the system," Serfling said.

The Betty Ford Center, though a separate corporation from Eisenhower, is described on the hospital's website as one of the hospital's specialty centers, "the premier ... in the field."

There is no suggestion in the lawsuit that patients being treated at Betty Ford received excessive prescriptions. But Blasingame alleged that after she brought her concerns to top officials at both Eisenhower and Betty Ford, they failed to act.

Indeed, Blasingame, a 14-year employee who was fired in 2003, testified that the hospital retaliated against her. The jury agreed, awarding her $1.3 million in December. She later settled for an undisclosed sum and has declined to be interviewed.

In court documents, Blasingame alleged that she approached Betty Ford Chief Executive John Schwarzlose in 2002, figuring that he would be uniquely disposed to help her. Schwarzlose, who sits on Eisenhower's board, told her the doctors' actions were "illegal if not criminal," she alleged, but when he learned she had contacted a lawyer, he urged her to resign.

In court testimony, Schwarzlose disputed that he encouraged Blasingame to resign. He said he himself shared some of her concerns about how pain was managed at Eisenhower, and for that reason often sent patients to other hospitals for such treatment.

But he said he reported Blasingame's concerns to the hospital's attorney, and though he did not follow up, he believed he had satisfied his obligation.

"If I went to the CEO of Eisenhower and said there are too many doctors pushing pills still over there, I wouldn't expect they would wave a wand and get rid of those doctors," Schwarzlose said in an interview. "But I could help them bring in doctors who offer alternatives to pain pills.

"I don't try to impose my philosophy on Eisenhower Medical Center any more than I would Loma Linda or Cedars-Sinai."

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