The Texas Medical Board has temporarily suspended the license of a Houston doctor who Board investigators allege is running a pill mill out of a pain clinic on West Little York.
According to the suspension order of Julia Renee Ward, investigators for the Medical and Pharmacy boards staked out the Tejas Urgent Care Clinic and adjacent H&W Pharmacy, where they saw patients brought to the clinic by "drug crews."
"The patients -- two, three, or four at a time -- would arrive in a single vehicle and go to [Ward's] clinic. The patients enter the clinic and stay for about 20 minutes, and then these patients went next door to H&W and had their prescriptions filled. After the patients were finished in the clinic and/or H&W, they returned together to the same vehicle that brought them to the clinic."
Several of the vehicles had out-of-state-plates, and some of the patients were from Alabama and Louisiana, according to investigators. Almost all paid in cash. Most of the prescriptions were for hydrocodone, Xanax and Soma. "These three drugs are a well-known combination known as the 'cocktail,' 'trinity,' or 'the Houston cocktail,' which is commonly abused and/or diverted for sale to addicts," according to the order.
But Ward tells Hair Balls that any allegations of her clinic being a pill mill are "completely false." She says she and her staff review patients' medical records and provide appropriate treatment. She invited us to visit the clinic, which she described as an 18-exam-room facility with comprehensive medical equipment -- hardly the kind of sketchy one-room storefront that springs to mind when you think of "pill mills." (Which would, of course, be excellent cover if you're running a freaking pill mill. But we digress.)
"The focus of this clinic is to provide affordable medical care for the community," Ward says, adding that unwarranted crackdowns on legitimate pain clinics interfere with the welfare of patients who truly need proper treatment for chronic pain. (Ward graduated from the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine in 1994 and was licensed to practice in Texas in 2006.)
But according to investigators, Ward's clinic didn't appear to be in the practice of proper pain treatment.
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"Patients who did not go to the [pharmacy] to fill their prescriptions would return to the vehicles, and the 'drug crew' transported [them] to a pharmacy located across the street from the Tejas Clinic. The patients would exit the vehicle at timed intervals and enter the pharmacy to get the prescriptions filled. The vehicles of the 'drug crews' would drive to a nearby apartment complex, discharge the patients who had just been to the clinic and/or pharmacy, and the same vehicles returned to the parking lot in front of H&W and [Tejas] with a new group of individuals/'patients,'" according to the order.
According to the Board, Ward applied in 2009 to register Tejas Clinic as a pain clinic, but the application was denied because it was partly owned by a non-physician -- Luis Soriano, who also owned the H&W Pharmacy. (The pharmacy is no longer in business, at least at that location.)
Ward says the Board never notified her of such a rejection.
While Ward waits for the Board to schedule a hearing on her license, the clinic remains open, although Ward is not treating patients. She said she'll assist in administrative and marketing matters until the situation is resolved.