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.’”


77 Comments

  1. Lukenelson says:

    Just legalize it and be done with it.Quit all this BS.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 2

  2. standup says:

    This on-line paper is worse than Globe or NE. Someone came up with a rumor to discredit someone else and this site published it. Maybe I’ll call this site and tell them McDonalds is switching to hotdogs only. Should make the front page.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 9

  3. slo101 says:

    Rees’ husband, also a doctor said, “If a physician recommends or approves the use of medical marijuana for a minor, the parents or legal guardians must be fully informed of the risks and benefits of such use and must consent to that use. Again, nothing about a requirement for consulting with a parent in person.”

    However the New York Times said, “Until the age of 18, patients requesting medical marijuana must be accompanied to the doctor’s appointment and to the dispensaries by a parent or authorized caregiver.” http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/22/health/22sfmedical.html

    Mr. Rees, I guess this means the reporters at the New York Times are tabloid reporters and liars.

    And for Rees’ claims that it is OK for her assistant to write recommendations for medical marijuana, as long as she signs the paper even though she didn’t see the patient, even pro marijuana sites dispute her assertions.

    “CAUTION: Some commercial clinics have been issuing recommendations through physician’s assistants rather than directly through M.D.s. The legality of this procedure has been challenged by law enforcement. If your recommendation has not been issued by a licensed M.D. in person, it may not hold up in court. Patients are advised to check and make sure they are seeing a real M.D., not just an assistant.” http://www.420meds.com/Doctors.html.

    Both Dr. Rees and her husband claim under 18 patients can see a doctor for medical marijuana without a parent. I think if you are going to make money on medical marijuana laws, you should know them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 17

    • zaphod says:

      “Regarding the fifteen year old I allegedly saw without a parent: that never happened. While it is both legal and accepted medical practice to see underage patients with a note from a parent without a parent present, my policy is to require the presence of a parent or guardian.” Dr. Atsuko Rees. Why is everyone insisting she gives drugs to kids, after she took the time to provide us with an explanation.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 8

    • b_slo says:

      This is California, not New York.
      Different states have different laws.
      Anything can be challenged in court; it’s up to a judge to decide if the interpretation is to change.
      The current laws addressing medical marijuana in California are as I have quoted them. Look them up yourself, I listed the references in my posting of 17 January.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 6

      • slo101 says:

        The New York Times’ article is about California’s medical marijuana laws. You have only quoted part of the law.

        Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 7

        • b_slo says:

          Feel free to quote the entire law here if you want, but you will NOT be able to cite the part that says a minor must be accompanied by an adult, because it just ain’t there.
          Also, I emailed Ms. Ellison, the reporter who wrote the NY Times story, and asked her where she got that information. Her reply: “Hi there–
          That’s a good question; I believe I was citing the rules of Medicann, the
          pot-doc network.” I went to the Medicann website (as if it would be more authoritative than the CA medical board website or the law itself) and there is no such statement there. I emailed Medicann, they have not answered.
          SInce 1) the point is moot, as my wife Dr. Rees already stated that her policy is not to see minor medical marijuana patients without a parent or guardian present, and 2) I now find myself fact-checking articles that never mentioned my wife, the time has come to say goodbye to this site.
          Any detractors out there who want to make something else up, you may do so without fear of retort from me.
          You can have the last word, the floor is yours.

          Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 3

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