Two Missouri doctors with felony records who misused prescription drugs had their licenses to practice medicine restored last month, and the state’s top health official said that’s “the tip of an iceberg.”
Randall Williams, the director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said the Missouri Board of Registration for the Healing Arts’ decision to re-license Charles Sutherland and Michael Impey is part of a larger pattern of physician drug abuse. He and Gov. Eric Greitens are examining the problem as they try to fight the state’s opioid epidemic.
“We’ve been looking very closely at the (board of) Healing Arts record on that issue,” said Williams, the state’s top health official. “You’ve tapped into an area that is very much of concern to us and we’ve been doing a lot of due diligence on that.”
Williams said he would be able to release more information next week.
The medical board re-licensed Sutherland, who used to run a clinic in Paris, Mo., despite an arrest for driving while intoxicated in 2003 and a felony conviction for forging prescriptions, including some for opioids, in 2010. Sutherland was put on probation after the forgery conviction, then violated that probation and was sentenced to 120 days in prison after he was convicted of criminal damage to property in 2012.
Nicole Volkert, who was the prosecuting attorney in Monroe County during Sutherland’s forgery case, said she was surprised to hear he was getting his license back.
“When he was practicing medicine Dr. Sutherland contributed to the misuse of opioids in this community,” said Volkert, who is now an assistant city attorney for the city of Columbia. “In my opinion, I don’t think he should have gotten his medical license back.”
Impey, a St. Louis doctor, got his license back despite a felony conviction for illegally distributing controlled substances and despite his lawyer saying during a 2009 malpractice suit that Impey was addicted to pain pills. The plaintiff in the suit, John W. Campbell, said Impey punctured his colon during a medical procedure, leading to a followup surgery to remove the damaged portion.
John Fromson is a professor with the Harvard Medical School and founding director of Physician Health Services, a treatment and monitoring program for doctors with substance abuse problems. He said most state medical boards are more likely to license to physicians that come forward voluntarily, admit they have an addiction problem and get in treatment before they end up in the legal system, especially if alcohol is the problem.
Fromson, who has counseled physicians with addiction problems, said every case is different and he wouldn’t be able to assess Sutherland and Impey’s fitness to practice without interviewing or evaluating them. But after reading the Missouri board’s reports he said they’re not simple cases.
“These guys have a whole host of issues going on,” Fromson said.
A message left at Impey’s new office at the Volarich Medical Group in St. Louis was not returned. Sutherland has no practice location listed with the medical board.
Both will be allowed to practice anywhere in Missouri, but will have several restrictions placed on their licenses, including being denied a registration number that pharmacies require to fill prescriptions for controlled substances.
Missouri Board of Registration for the Healing Arts is tasked with protecting the public by assessing physicians’ “competence to practice and their moral character.” The board investigates complaints about doctors and then decides whether discipline is in order.
The board is made up of eight doctors and one “voting public member,” appointed by the governor to four-year terms.
But four of the positions are currently vacant, leaving the remaining five members to make decisions about whether to suspend, revoke or restore licenses based on potentially only three votes.
As far as the board’s decisions, Connie Clarkston, the board’s executive director, said the deliberations are closed, but provided a citation to the Missouri laws that govern the board’s actions. The law gives the board authority to revoke or withhold licenses for any combination of dozens of offenses.
The board voted to restore Impey’s license on the condition that he keep them up to date on where he lives and works and submits to unannounced inspections. He will also be restricted from prescribing controlled substances.
The board revoked his license in 2008 for prescribing controlled substances after he was barred from doing so by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services’ Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. In 2011 he pleaded guilty in St. Louis County Circuit Court to two felony counts of distributing or dispensing controlled substances without the authority to do so.
Sutherland’s license will be restricted during a 10-year probationary period. He will have to participate in a drug abuse treatment and monitoring program for physicians, receive psychotherapy sessions, attend support groups meetings and practice only “in a structured environment that is supportive to recovery.”
The Hannibal Courier-Post reported in 2009 that Sutherland’s history of documented drug abuse dates back to 1991, when the North Dakota medical board restricted his license because he “habitually self-administered controlled substances for other than medically accepted therapeutic purposes.”
That was the start of a decades-long series of sanctions from medical boards in North Dakota, Illinois and Missouri, interspersed with arrests for driving while intoxicated and writing illegal prescriptions after losing his authority to prescribe controlled substances.