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.’”


Loading...
Typoqueen

“This doctor has clearly given everyone and anyone a recommendation for MM for the asking and the right price”


Cindy how do you know that she ‘clearly’ gave everyone and anyone a recomend, do you simply believe every bit of gossip that you hear or read? There is nothing clear about this article. There is absolutly nothing in this article that demonstrates that there are ANY facts in this case. I know better than to believe every/any digruntled ex employee or business partner. Someone

told Karen that a 15 year old kid recieved a recomend. from the doc.., someone told me Sarah Palin was a rocket scientist. I don’t believe that kids should smoke pot but I don’t know that this really happened. I spoke with my friend that I mentioned that’s a patient of this doc. He was charged $150.00 and that’s it, no $100.00 office visit. How many people think that these people getting recomendations wouldn’t be getting pot anyway. At least they aren’t getting it from some mexican drug cartel. One last thing. I’m glad that the doc hasn’t responded, why should she? I wouldn’t want my doc discussing issues that might have something to do with my care.


inthemiddle

I think you missed this information. Cindy worked along side Dr. Rees in the same medical practice. It is well known and established information in SLO and Atascadero among the young adults.


Cindy

I am not the Cindy who worked with Dr. Rees. I have been posting here on CCN since it’s inception when it was Uncovered SLO. I am not and never have been in the medical field, I’m an accountant for private industry. My experience with Dr. Rees is exactly what I have said it is.


Cindy

Typo, you ask, “Cindy how do you know that she ‘clearly’ gave everyone and anyone a recommendation”? Perhaps you missed my earlier post about the old friend that I rented my home out to while I worked out of town for a year between 2007-08. I witnessed her do it for the asking and the cash, that’s how I know. When I told my friend he could grow some pot on my deck if he kept it legal, I never in my wildest dreams thought he would find a bunch of people to send to a local Dr for recommendations, who would then in turn, designate him as a caregiver. It was so easy for him because she gave it to everyone he sent to her (including him). I don’t have anything against MM, in fact there was a three month period back in 2003 when I had to use it for 3 months. It worked and then I didn’t need it anymore because the condition subsided. I had to prove to a Dr. what my condition was and bring all my medical records to get the recommendation. So I was very surprised to find pot growing all over my back deck, my guest bathroom and my office when I returned home after completing my project. Like I said, she gave anybody who wanted to grow pot a recommendation and he managed to keep it legal like I had asked. My whole property smelled like a skunk, who would have thought when I said keep it legal this would have happened!


humptidumpti

Just a heads up Cindy, and anyone else who may be equally misinformed. If Dr Rees is telling people they can grow as caregivers for anybody and everybody they feel like it is incorrect. In order to be a “care provider” as intended under Prop 215, there are certain guidelines which must be met. Simply having a friend who allows you to copy their recommendation doesn’t cut it. Providing misinformation like this to uneducated people will get them put in jail.


Nancy

My question is, why does it cost so much more to see Dr Rees for a medical marijuana recommendation than it does to see (her) or a doctor at HealthWorks for antibiotics or any other illness? I would think diagnosing and prescribing is far more of a service than accommodating a request for a marijuana recommendation. Sounds like this doctor was taking advantage of a popular unlimited “supply and demand” phenomena.


humptidumpti

Last time I went to a medical doctor for a regular check up of any kind it was $120.00, waited in the waiting room for 45 minutes, saw the doctor for 15, is there some kind of difference here that I am unable to comprehend?


lmg

i have to admit that when i saw this article and this doctor’s smiling face, i chuckled a bit, without even having to read the article. let me tell you why. about 6 years ago i woke up with major back and neck pain and could barely move. i hadn’t been ill, hadn’t done anything strange to cause injury, and had no other health injuries so i went to the ER. they did a bunch of test and ended up thinking i may have meningitis so they did a spinal tap. came out negative, gave me some pain killers, told me to come back if things got worse and to follow up with my doctor. next day i wake up with excrutiating stomach pains so i call her old office to see my normal doctor. he couldn’t get me in but she could squeeze me in later that day. i go in and wait in the waiting room for well over an hour, they were very busy. it is after 5 and everyone wants to go home. she has me come in, asks me what hurts, looks in my ears and down my throat and diagnoses me with an upper respiratory infection. huh? i had no cough, sore throat, any symptoms of this! i pointed this out to her, she looks irtritated and writes me a prescription. immediately my mom takes me back to the ER. with a little bit more to go off now, they run some more tests and it turns out i have a very large cyst in my ovary which was causing all the pain. i can see how she got confused… reproductive system… respiratory system… both start with r’s, right!


Nancy

That’s scary.


Cindy

There are several points that people seem to be missing with this story. Do you think it’s normal for a 15 year old boy to suffer from migraine headaches? Is a recommendation for marijuana appropriate for a 15 year old with headaches? Is this conscientious medicine? This boy wasn’t even accompanied by a parent (he had a note from his mother). Is it proper to treat patients off the books? These recommendations have to be kept on file because law enforcement has to verify them at them times. This doctor has clearly given everyone and anyone a recommendation for MM for the asking and the right price. This doctor also put her partners at HealthWorks in a precarious situation.

I might add that Dr. Rees was contacted by CCN on more than one occasion and given plenty of opportunity to respond, she chose not to.


humptidumpti

And why should she. You do know about doctor patient privilege right? She can’t talk about what she does for the aid and benefit of her patients! Until there are charges by a legitimate government authority this is all hearsay and nothing more than tabloid reporting. No one should speak of things as if they are truth if they were not present to witness them yourself in living flesh. If someone was and has a legitimate concern then go to the proper authorities and let them do their job until then please be quiet.


Nancy

Doctors can and do talk about what they do for the benefit of their patients all the time. They just can’t mention the name of their patients. If Dr Rees believes in her philosophy about using marijuana for everything and anything by anyone (of all ages) then this would have been her perfect forum. She could have told her side of the story, she knew this story was going to be printed.


Paperboys

Choosing not to respond to a reporter’s requests for interviews is not against the law, nor does it allow a journalist to write just anything they want. We have freedom of speech AND the right to NOT speak in this country.

But calling someone a crook, or suggesting they are dodging taxes or conducting malpractice is potentially libelous on its face. And Karen needs to have more than the idle gossip of former co-workers to defend against that.

I have a friend who has suffered from migraines since he was in elementary school, he’s 48 now. Pot helped him, and this was long before the term medical marijuana was even invented.

Why is it that a 15-year-old kid shouldn’t be able to go to the doctor himself and get MM but a teenage girl can have an abortion without telling anyone? Don’t freak out, I am pro-choice but doesn’t that seem a little odd? Far more people die from botched abortions and even pregnancy itself, than the use of Mary Jane.

As for the “recommendations” made by doctors, my understanding is a person is supposed to take the recommendation to the County Health Dept and apply for a county-issued MM card. That’s what you’re supposed to show the dispensaries, and cops when they contact you, not the doctor’s note.

Why you need or want MM is nobody’s business, not the cops, the county, the courts nor even CCN.

And since when is it against the law for someone to make money? The county certainly makes money on the MM cards. You have to pay for it and the only thing you get back is a promise that the cops will leave you alone, which frankly, depends on WHICH cops are doing the asking.


DeepBlueSLO

Cindy (I suspect Cynthia Scott from Health Works),


You may be 100% right about Dr. Rees, but being a bad doctor is not a crime (malpractice is a civil action). However, the law provides a distinction about what you can publish when you accuse them of a crime. If you feel crimes were committed, then you should have contacted the medical board and law enforcement. If you post your accusations online and happen to be wrong – then you may be getting a summons.


Business breakups are like divorces, someone is always very bitter and rarely does the blame fall squarely on one party.


Also, in California, anyone over 12 can seek outpatient, non-surgical mental health treatment on their own without parental consent:

http://www.youthlaw.org/fileadmin/ncyl/youthlaw/publications/minor_consent/CA_consent_mental_mar05.pdf


b_slo

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.


Dexter

DeepBlue, Typo and Paperboy:


Personally I think marijuana should be legalized for adults and taxed accordingly. As far as minors and juveniles are concerned, it should be regulated in a manner consistent with tobacco and alcohol laws. Because marij does impact the learning process and brain function for young people I suggest that it remain illegal for anyone to provide or sell marij to any minor and that the penalty for such behavior is stiff.


Medicinal marij is fine so long as the process it is not abused by certain physicians who care more about the money than the welfare of the patient. There are too many cases of marij being perscribed for questionable ailments. I think the New Jersey law was written much better then California law and I believe that medicinal marijuana should be dispensed through a legitimate source akin to a pharmacy.


As to these suggestions that the Cal Coasts article is defamatory, I suggest that should the Doctor (and I use that term loosely) go down the road to litigation, her business records and professional practices will be subject to significant scrutiny by the Medical Board and the IRS and only then will the rest of the story be fully exposed.


Actually I think the medical board should examine this situation to determine if the Doctor has breached her ethical responsibilities.


humptidumpti

If the medical board is going to try and sort out whether there is a breach here, by all rights they need to look into every prescription written for any kind of sleeping aid, anti-depressant and medication for stress related disorders. It’s only fair, how can anyone condone discrimination over a legal substance and a doctors right to recommend/prescribe it, if it is not across the board. 30,000 will probably become a miniscual number in proportion to all those other drugs? The other abuses are actually causing people to DIE from over prescribing where is the uproar over this?


DeepBlueSLO

I have no idea if Dr. Rees is a good doctor or not. I do know (as per the CA Medical Board web site) she graduated from an accredited medical school, is fully licensed in CA, and has no prior disciplinary issues. What I also know is that if you publish or imply an accusation of a criminal act (such as tax fraud), you better have personally reviewed the person’s tax returns and business financial records – I doubt Karen had access to those documents. Putting money in your pocket (or lab coat) is only against the law if you fail to report it to the IRS.


I appreciate the service this site provides, but reprinting criminal accusations without supporting evidence or affidavits could provide easy money for the right attorney.


Truth is the ultimate defense for defamation, and if everything Karen has printed is true, then she has nothing to worry about. Just be care what you post – there are likely more eyes watching this site than you know.


cheseburger

Back to prohibition for children with glacoma?


Bluebird

I find it interesting that only a few comments address the issues of unprofessional conduct — overcharging with regard to time spent with patients, taking cash and providing no receipt, seeing minors who are not accompanied by an adult and excessive writing of medical marijuana prescriptions.

Anytime I have seen a physician their office staff handles payments. I never seen a doctor who took cash and stuffed it in their pocket. It is quite clear to me that she is under reporting her income. This is tax fraud.

A very few physicians like her are making a mockery of a well intentioned law. Now that this is in the open it will be interesting to see if law enforcement takes action and if the local medical board will follow-up.

As we all know this county has a practice of ignoring white collar crime so my bet is that nothing happens.


humptidumpti

More distressing than this article and any speck of truth that “may” be in it is your statement that this is “quite clear to me that she is under reporting her income.” My mother used to tell me believe half of what you see and nothing that you hear. You must be some kind of savant if you can tell this is totally true enough to determine “quite clear” guilt.


Cindy

My previous renter was handed a receipt by Dr Rees. I have it here in my desk. It does not have her name or the name of her practice on it. It is a generic payment receipt for $150.00 cash and says it is for “MM”.


humptidumpti

Swell, as mentioned before and after, if you are so certain somehow the law is being broken, stop obstructing justice and report it to the proper authorities.


DeepBlueSLO

There is absolutely nothing illegal or unethical about what you describe. Receipts are only required if the customer requests it.


humptidumpti

There is so much re-education necessary when it comes to marijuana. First flat out lie is it is not addictive in any way shape or form. Secondly it is not the “gateway” drug everyone cries out about. If there is a gateway drug it is alcohol. There are no chemicals or additives in it, just naturally ocurring THC. Thirdly there are no devasting and health destroying side effects like you see listed for all prescription drugs. All this uproar has been created to keep people addicted to seeing doctors for exhorbetantly over priced prescriptions so they can become addicted to them, have their teeth rot, liver and kidneys fail so they can prescribe more drugs.

Let’s end the witch hunts and let people have their medicine, God only knows just living in our society is reason enough to need medical marijuana. Find some real evil to try and destroy.


DeepBlueSLO

This is too bad. As much as I like this site and Karen’s past work, I think this article crosses the line.


If you go out and accuse a licensed physician, who has no history of problems from the CA Medical Board, of illegal or unethical actions, you better have some strong concrete evidence – not just quotes from former co-workers. I’m talkin’ audio/video/physical documentation sort of stuff – not he said/she said. A doctor really trades on their reputation and if you set out to damage it, you better have consulted an attorney first.


There is an lawyer in Grover Beach, Kurt Berger, who really knows his stuff when it comes to online defamation – I would love to hear his take on this.


Cindy

DeepBlueSLO,


CCN has never reported false information. CCN just might have a lot more proof than you think. My bet is on Velie. She doesn’t always tell us what she has to back up her fact finding.


b_slo

Of all the innuendo and nonsense in Ms. Velie’s article, let me pick just one point. Ms. Velie says that since 2007 Dr. Rees “has written more than 30,000 medical marijuana approvals.”

This is false.

I’m Dr. Rees’ husband. We file our taxes jointly. If she had grossed over $4 million from medical marijuana in three years, I would know.

What rubbish.


slo_student

I would love an opportunity to speak to Ms. Velie about this article. As a student, in my English classes (especially during the section on Orwell’s 1984) a lot of emphasis has been put on recognizing when the media, the news, abuses their responsibility to the community by presenting stories that are unilateral and unabashedly biased. Indeed, in some of the worst cases, the breaking “news exclusives” are nothing more than glorified advertisements. Thus, my rhetorical analysis would be as follows: “Why,” I would ask, “why is it that this article–that alleges such serious, and incredibly damaging accusations against the former owner of Healthworks–depends entirely upon the accusation of either the current owner of Healthworks or her nameless employees?” Who gains from this very blatant attack on Dr. Rees? Well, “Healthworks” is mentioned in nearly every single paragraph. One may wonder how this happened. Perhaps it is that Healthworks is now a main sponsor of Cal Coast News? Perhaps because Healthworks is now running an ad next to this very “article”? I hope that the editor of this “news” source addresses this issue, for indeed, it is so transparent it is embarrassing. Additionally, Ms. Velie uses diction such as “in reality,” in her article, which beg the question, exactly what “reality” are we talking about here?


moderator

There appears to be more than one moderator at work, I reviewed and restored your comment.