A new unit at the Michigan State Police attacks the opioid crisis by pursuing criminal investigations against doctors, advanced care practitioners and pharmacists suspected of illegally writing or dispensing controlled substances.
The six-member statewide Diversion Investigation Unit primarily targets medical professionals — physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners — and pharmacists who intentionally divert a controlled substance for recreational or illicit use.
For example, that occurs when a doctor writes a prescription in a patient’s name and then has someone fill it, or when a doctor turns “a blind eye to a patient who doesn’t actually need them, but (the doctor) continues to prescribe them,” said State Police Det. Lt. Benjamin Garrison, who leads the Diversion Investigation Unit.
The unit “in no way, shape or form is targeting patents. That is not our goal at all,” Garrison said.
“Our job is to continue to combat the opioid epidemic,” he said. “We’re looking for dirty doctors and dirty pharmacists that are doing this either for financial gain or some other benefit to them that goes farther than the scope of what they’re supposed to as a medical professional.”
Illegal prescriptions are a part of a “huge problem” with opioids in Michigan, and “there are certainly people who would argue that this may be the root of it,” Garrison said.
The State Police always had a couple of investigators embedded with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, but the structure changed in January with the formation of the new unit. The State Police added to its ranks in the summer and publicly announced the unit’s creation in October.
“We evolve as crime does,” said Col. Joe Gasper, the director of the Michigan State Police. “This is a very real and potentially deadly part of the opioid epidemic. Prescribing medically unnecessary controlled substances pushes highly addictive drugs on to our streets, impacting public and patient safety.”
The Diversion Investigation Unit consists of five Michigan State Police detectives and an intelligence analyst. The unit acts on complaints and tips, and it monitors data on the Michigan Automated Prescription System (MAPS) for “certain red flags” indicating activity that merits a full-scale criminal investigation, Garrison said.
MAPS allows doctors to check patients’ prescription histories for controlled substances before issuing new prescriptions. A 2017 state law requires physicians to use MAPS before prescribing a controlled substance to see if a patient has had it filled elsewhere. The goal is to eliminate the so-called practice of “doctor shopping,” in which a person goes to multiple physicians to get a prescription.
“When we’re seeing doctors that are intentionally prescribing outside the course of a legitimate medical practice and for not a legitimate reason, my unit doesn’t distinguish between them and any other drug dealer,” Garrison said. “In fact, I would argue, if you look at the larger scope of things, the impact is much greater from someone wearing a white coat that’s doing things illegally.”
Meanwhile, pharmacists who work at retail pharmacies are not required to notify law enforcement if they suspect somebody is trying to have an illegitimate prescription filled, although “I would argue ethically they are,” Garrison said.
However, many pharmacies maintain “no-fill” lists and “what I would love to see them do is call law enforcement,” he said.
The Diversion Investigation Unit refers criminal cases to local prosecutors. If needed, the unit also will refer cases to the state Attorney General’s office.
The unit’s work already has led to charges against two medical professionals. A Lansing nurse practitioner, Remona Brown, is accused of one count of conducting a criminal enterprise, one count of conspiracy to manufacture illegal prescriptions, nine counts of manufacturing illegal prescriptions and one count of health care fraud.
In Mason, physician Arduth Burgess was charged with one count of manufacturing illegal prescriptions, two counts of possessing controlled substances, one count of health care fraud and one count of failing to keep records, as well as one misdemeanor count of licensee prescription violations.