EXCLUSIVE: Doctor accused of running a medical marijuana mill
January 10, 2010
BY KAREN VELIE
Former co-workers are accusing Dr. Atsuko Rees, a physician at HealthWorks in San Luis Obispo until July 2009, of writing medical marijuana recommendations for almost anyone who asked, while not claiming the bulk of payments for the visits as income.
The allegations come as medical officials across the country are asking if a small number of doctors are responsible for authorizing the vast majority of medical marijuana cards — possibly abusing a law meant to help patients with chronic health problems. These few doctors, many known for spending five to ten minutes with patients before diagnosing them with a chronic illness, are said to be practicing sub-standard medical care as they rake in between $150 to $250 for each diagnosis.
HealthWorks employees allege that Dr. Rees, a former co-owner of HealthWorks who now practices at Rees Family Medical on Higuera Street in San Luis Obispo, would see as many as 60 to 70 patients on so-called “Marijuana Fridays” when she practiced at HealthWorks. Both Dr. Rees and Mary Eanes, a physician’s assistant Dr. Rees continues to work with, would approve patients’ medical marijuana status. However, to comply with California law, Dr. Rees would sign off on patients as if she had seen each patient personally, former co-workers said.
Neither Dr. Rees nor Eanes returned numerous phone calls asking for comment. However, a call to their office confirmed the group is continuing to issue medical marijuana cards.
Even though Dr. Rees saw patients of all ages at HealthWorks, the bulk of her marijuana card clients fell between the ages of 15 and 25, with a large number visiting the clinic on, or within days of, their 18th birthday.
Medical marijuana patients under age 18 must have a parent present when seeing a doctor or visiting a dispensary, according to California law. Nevertheless, Dr. Rees gave a medical marijuana recommendation to a 15-year-old Nipomo boy who walked into the clinic complaining of headaches. He provided a note from his mother that said he could seek medical care without an accompanying parent.
Dr. Rees started writing cannabis recommendations in 2007 and since then has written more than 30,000 medical marijuana approvals for everything from sleeping problems to anxiety.
Cynthia Scott, a former business partner of Dr. Rees at HealthWorks, said that shortly after Dr. Rees began advertising for patients seeking medical marijuana, they began seeing scores of cannabis-seeking patients. Scott said many patients would come to the counter requesting to see the “marijuana doctor.”
Scott also said that when the partners began battling over the clinic’s growing reputation as a marijuana prescription mill, Dr. Rees told Scott not to worry because she was “keeping it all off the books.” Nevertheless, the partners’ disagreements escalated until Dr. Rees agreed to leave HealthWorks.
“She would put the money in her lab coat,” Scott said. “She would have pockets full of cash.”
While at HealthWorks, Dr. Rees also saw patients for medical problems not related to marijuana. A former employee, who was responsible for billing insurance companies, said Dr. Rees allegedly would pad the bills by reporting she had seen patients for at least 25 minutes, when in reality she had spent less than 10 minutes examining the client.
The illegal act of false billing, referred to as up-coding, can cause the insurance reimbursement for a medical visit to jump from $56 to $83.
HealthWorks’ current physician, Dr. Donella Jenkins, said that although Dr. Rees left HealthWorks some six months ago, the business continues to turn away multiple patients who are asking to see the “marijuana doctor.”
Approximately a year ago, officials at the Grizzly Academy were considering hiring Dr. Rees to help provide medical care for their students.
“I learned from nurses at HealthWorks that Dr. Rees was using the office to sell marijuana prescriptions,” said Dr. George Ward, a local physician who worked with students at the Grizzly Academy. “I said ‘she is not the doctor we want around our youth.’”