Friday, Dec. 19, 2008 | 2 a.m.
- Dec. 3 -- Another doctor loses his right to prescribe
- Nov. 13 -- Board strips doctor of license to prescribe controlled substances
- Oct. 21 -- Legally, doctor is under no limits
- Oct. 15 -- Patient’s husband remembers her wry humor, last pain-filled weeks
- Oct. 15 -- When drugs bring harm not healing
- Oct. 15 -- Her outlook darkened as her addiction deepened, journal details
The Drug Enforcement Administration on Thursday stripped Dr. Kevin Buckwalter of his ability to prescribe controlled substances, alleging that at least eight of his patients since 2005 have died of overdoses.
The DEA said that allowing the Henderson physician to prescribe controlled substances “constitutes an imminent danger to public health and safety.”
The suspension of Buckwalter’s certificate of registration means he is not eligible to write prescriptions for controlled substances — including narcotics such as hydrocodone, methadone and oxycodone — anywhere in the country.
Timothy Landrum, DEA special agent in charge of its Los Angeles division, said in a statement about Buckwalter — the focus of a Sun investigation into overprescribed narcotics — that more Americans abuse prescription drugs than cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens and inhalants combined.
“Unfortunately, there are a few doctors using their position of trust in our communities to prey on those who are vulnerable to the abuse of these drugs,” Landrum said.
Bryce Buckwalter, the doctor’s brother and attorney, said Thursday evening in an e-mail that the DEA actions were unjustified and “the direct result of political influences within the State of Nevada ... We are confident we will be able to have the suspension lifted by the DEA.”
Kevin Buckwalter is being investigated for allegedly failing to properly examine patients and assess their need for drugs, prescribing excessive amounts of drugs and failing to properly monitor the use of controlled substances prescribed, the DEA said.
The DEA, which investigates cases for possible civil or criminal prosecution, would not comment further on its investigation. Buckwalter, a family physician and pediatrician whose records show he prescribed large doses of narcotics to some patients, will be able to appeal the DEA’s decision in an administrative hearing, possibly in February, officials said.
Buckwalter has been the subject of a months-long Sun investigation that included interviews with dozens of his former patients, former employees and families of loved ones who died while under his care. Four medical experts who reviewed patient records at the Sun’s request — with the permission of the patients or their families — concluded that Buckwalter prescribed alarmingly high amounts of narcotics and Xanax, with virtually no medical documentation, which contributed to the deaths of at least three patients.
The Nevada Medical Examiners Board has determined in its own investigation, which is ongoing, that Buckwalter committed malpractice in four cases, including one in which “excessive” doses of narcotics led to a patient’s death. On Nov. 13, the medical board and Nevada Pharmacy Board suspended the doctor’s license to prescribe controlled substances in the state. He subsequently sold his practice.
“This is getting bigger and bigger,” Dr. Andrea Trescot said of the DEA’s announcement about the eight patient deaths.
Trescot, a nationally known pain specialist who reviewed patient records on behalf of the Sun, said overdose deaths occur with even the best doctors. But they are rare occurrences, she added, saying three of her patients have died of accidental overdoses in about 15 years.
Trescot praised the DEA for taking action, but criticized the agency for taking so long. Sometimes the DEA hounds a doctor after one patient dies, but in this case there were many deaths and the DEA was slow to respond, Trescot said.
Dr. David Kloth, a past president of the American Society of Intervention Pain Physicians, who also reviewed records at the Sun’s request, said he has not seen enough evidence to determine whether Buckwalter’s behavior was criminal.
“I think he’s just not a good doctor,” Kloth said. “He’s poorly trained and operating way beyond his level of expertise.”
Kloth said that if allegations of criminal negligence are going to be directed at Buckwalter, they could also apply to the DEA and the Nevada medical board — which did not discipline him in 2005 after a complaint related to a patient death.
“Maybe the medical board in Nevada is criminally negligent for not stripping him of his license earlier,” Kloth said.
Kay Van Wey, a Dallas attorney who is representing the families of three people who died while under Buckwalter’s care, said she intends to discover what the medical board members knew, when they knew it and what they did about it.
Acting on patient complaints, the Sun investigated Buckwalter after the newspaper’s analysis of the DEA’s controlled substances database showed that Nevadans consume more narcotics per capita than residents of almost any other state.
Nevadans rank first in the country in per capita consumption of hydrocodone, the main ingredient in the drugs Vicodin and Lortab, and fourth in consumption of methadone, morphine and oxycodone, the primary ingredient in OxyContin.
The Sun also found that Clark County’s prescription drug deaths now outnumber those from all illicit drugs combined. Experts say doctors who overprescribe narcotics contribute to the crisis.