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.’”


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77 Comments

  1. Lukenelson says:

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

    (21) 25 Total Votes - 23 up - 2 down
  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.

    (17) 35 Total Votes - 26 up - 9 down
  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.

    (-8) 26 Total Votes - 9 up - 17 down
    • 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.

      (19) 35 Total Votes - 27 up - 8 down
    • 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.

      (4) 16 Total Votes - 10 up - 6 down
      • slo101 says:

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

        (-2) 12 Total Votes - 5 up - 7 down
        • 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.

          (17) 23 Total Votes - 20 up - 3 down
  4. Scarlet says:

    Give me a break, Atsuko. You wait a week to reply and then claim that the reporter never made an effort to contact you? Did you ever contact Velie for a retraction? This really smacks of Gearhart’s protestations…

    This story is not about the merits of, or concerns about, medical marijuana, but about your blatant disregard for the law. You dilute the importance of mm for patients with true chronic pain. You are responsible for your own reputation. Own it.

    (-25) 39 Total Votes - 7 up - 32 down
    • b_slo says:

      When once asked why he didn’t aggressively respond to his detractors, Muhammed Ali repilied, ‘Dogs howl at the moon, but the moon doesn’t howl back.’
      The ‘reporter’ never made an effort to contact Dr. Rees; I know, I’m her husband. Dr. Rees has no interest in tabloid journalism, and had no plans to contact Ms. Velie at all for any reason ever. It was only at my urging, telling my wife that about half the people posting responses seemed reasonable and deserved to hear the truth, that she wrote her rebuttal at all. Anyone writing something here for Dr. Atsuko Rees to read will receive no response from her, as she doesn’t visit this site.
      As for your anonymous and unsupported assertion that my wife has a ‘blatant disregard for the law,’ at the risk of being crude I challenge you to ‘put up or shut up.’ I cited the relevant laws in my response to nancy below. If you have evidence of illegal activity, tell us what activity is violating what law, or go to the police or the medical board with your evidence. If you don’t have any evidence, than you, like others, are just spreading malicious false gossip.
      Fortunately, it appears by the lack of recent ‘like or dislike’ responses that interest in this non-story is on the wane. While there is a certain perverse fascination with reading the uninformed and mean spirited attacks on my wife, kind of like watching those police chase shows on TV while waiting for the pasta to cook, I don’t think it’s very healthy, and I plan soon to join my wife and bid a permanent farewell to calcoastnews.com.

      (25) 35 Total Votes - 30 up - 5 down
    • zaphod says:

      Wow, using the *Gearhart* brush on Dr Rees,,, is quite a stretch Scarlet, considering Mr Gearheart has never responded to allegations made about him on this website IIRC, yet, Dr Rees does take the time to respond, in a very polite, and circumspect manner,(maybe tepid) I don’t think she deserves the harsh judgement inferred.
      I have seen no evidence that Dr Rees has broken the law, has anyone commenting here seen evidence, actual ‘happened in reality’ evidence? hands?
      I hope Dr Rees feels she is welcome commenting here like anyone else, I for one, thank her for responding.

      (13) 23 Total Votes - 18 up - 5 down
      • Scarlet says:

        Gearhart rebutted Velie directly on Congalton’s show, zaphod. And rees claimed that velie had never contacted her and then rees’ husband said she chose not to. Yes, I see how you would find that immensely credible.

        If not 30,000 recommendations, then how many rees?

        (-11) 17 Total Votes - 3 up - 14 down
        • zaphod says:

          This is Dr. Atsuko Rees. My rebuttal has taken awhile because I did not receive any phone calls or requests for comments from CCN, and did not know anything about this article until after it appeared.
          and
          I am Dr. Rees’ husband. She was not contacted by CCN prior to the article. Anyone who says she was is either misinformed or lying.
          The ‘reporter’ never made an effort to contact Dr. Rees; I know, I’m her husband.
          credible enough..

          (14) 28 Total Votes - 21 up - 7 down
          • Michelle says:

            “Neither Dr. Rees nor Eanes returned numerous phone calls asking for comment.”

            (-9) 15 Total Votes - 3 up - 12 down

Comments are closed.