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On March 1, 2022, the Supreme Court will hear a case that could make or break the future for pain doctors and their patients. Pat Anson, from Pain News Network, summed it up perfectly in this article "Supreme Court Case May Decide Future of Opioid Prescribing."

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

December 29, 2021

"Over a dozen patient and physician advocacy groups have filed legal briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court in support of two doctors appealing their convictions for criminal violations of the Controlled Substances Act.

The nation’s high court has consolidated the cases of Dr. Xiulu Ruan of Alabama and Dr. Shakeel Kahn, who practiced in Wyoming and Arizona. Both doctors were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being convicted on a variety of charges – including the prescribing of high doses of opioid pain medication to patients “outside the usual course of professional practice.”

Oral arguments will be heard by the Supreme Court on March 1, with a decision expected later in 2022. Monday was the deadline for interested parties to file “amicus curiae” briefs on the case, which could have a significant impact on opioid prescribing practices nationwide if the appeals are successful. Many doctors have stopped or reduced their prescribing of opioids because they fear being prosecuted under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).

“It is no exaggeration to say that CSA prosecutions of physicians have already impaired the treatment of chronic pain,” Ruan’s attorneys said in their appeal. “In response to the opioid crisis, fear of prosecution has increasingly prompted pain management doctors to avoid or reduce opioid prescriptions, even when those decisions leave chronic pain patients without recourse.”

A successful appeal would mean Ruan and Kahn could ask for new trials, along with dozens of other doctors convicted of similar charges under the CSA.

“It will also avoid what I see as the chilling effect that it’s had on lots of doctors who are not doing anything even remotely suspicious, but are afraid that they are going to get caught because they prescribe a higher dose, and so they’re dropping people from care or tapering them,” said Kate Nicholson.

NPAC, along with other advocacy groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are asking the high court to clearly state how the practice of medicine should be regulated under the CSA. Some argued it is best left to state medical boards, not federal prosecutors or law enforcement.

“Patients with pain, addiction, or both desperately need appropriate care and treatment. If practitioners are held strictly liable under (the CSA), patient abandonment will become ever more common as practitioners act to avoid scrutiny,” Jennifer Oliva and Kelly Dineen, professors of health law and policy, said in their brief. “Progress in medical care in these areas can only recover if the regulation of medical practice is returned to the province of the states except in narrow circumstances.”

‘Good Faith’ Practice

At issue in the Ruan/Kahn case is what constitutes the “standard of care” and “usual course of professional practice” under the CSA. Doctors traditionally have been given wide latitude in determining what’s appropriate for a patient, as long as they act in “good faith” with a medical purpose. But that laissez-faire approach came to an end as the overdose crisis intensified and doctors came under more scrutiny for their opioid prescribing practices. 

“No other country criminalizes physician behavior like the federal prosecutors have done in the US. This is especially the case as these prosecutions are all based on a whim with an ‘expert’ opinion rendered by a hired government expert and orchestrated by a new generation of overzealous and unchecked federal prosecutors pointing fingers at wealthy doctors as greedy drug pushers and fraudsters,” Physicians Against Abuse argued in its brief.

“Doctors are just a ‘sitting duck’ for these federal prosecutors who raid medical offices and unlike the career drug pusher on the streets who gets caught and charged with one or two counts, federal prosecutors pile up count after count because doctors are required to keep records and those records are used against them in these out of control prosecutions against physicians.”  

“I think our biggest concern is having the correct standard moving forward so that doctors have space to practice medicine appropriately and patients stop suffering,” Nicholson told PNN. “My guess is that they’ll do something to clarify, but how objectively or subjectively they go, I think that’s anyone’s guess.”  

Want to see what other experts have to say about this upcoming Supreme Court case? We've conveniently linked their posts about it for you:

We will keep you posted as new information about this comes out. This is huge, and can potentially change the climate for doctors and patients. Stay tuned! 

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