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Get Gephardt Investigates: Opioid crackdown leaves some pain patients unable to get meds

Opioid crackdown leaves some pain patients unable to get meds (Photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) Regular viewers of KUTV have no doubt seen coverage of the dangers of painkillers.

As we as a society try to figure out how best to tackle the opioid epidemic, there are those who say they're in pain and can't get out of bed in the morning without the help of pills. Taking away their ability to get their medications doesn't just make their pain go away.

Recently, Get Gephardt interviewed five people who gathered as a group at the KUTV studios, as well as about a dozen more by phone, all of whom have similar stories: they live in constant pain and the doctor who has helped keep them comfortable for years, and in some cases decades, was forced to close.

The move has left them scrambling to try and find new doctors. For some, that’s been a struggle. They’re finding some doctors are choosing to turn away chronic-pain patients as pressure mounts on doctors from powerful bureaucrats trying to reign in the opioid-abuse epidemic.

“The pain that I have is very real,” retired Major Chris Todd Lobato said among the group that visited KUTV. "Us sitting here, together, as a group, we're the ones who are getting punished for people out on the street overdosing and shooting up and not taking their medications as prescribed."

Their former doctor, Paul Pilgram, had been practicing medicine for 35 years. Last October, his license to prescribe medicine was yanked by state regulators.

Nine different people complained Pilgram's treatment of pain patients had led to some catastrophic consequences. Of the nine patients listed in the complaint against him, four are dead, including Rachael and Melissah Jackson's mom, Norma.

According to the medical examiner’s report, Norma died of having too many drugs in her system. Rachael and Melissah said they think Pilgram is at least partially responsible for their mom’s death.

“He was definitely negligent,” Rachael said. “I mean there's no way he could not have known that was too much."

But Pilgram said he stands by his decision to treat Norma the way that he did, as well as the other eight patients cited in the state’s complaint against him.

Pilgram has harsh words for the physician's licensing board, the group that recommended to Utah’s division of occupational and professional licensing his license to prescribe medicine be suspended. He believes the board, overreacting to the opioid crisis, is making him a scape goat for the larger societal issues.

“With the opioid deaths... all of a sudden everybody needs to stop taking opioids for their pain," Pilgram said.

He also believes the deck was stacked against him in his disciplinary hearing before the board.

“I was permitted no witnesses. I was permitted no testimony from any of the other patients in my practice," he said, claiming dozens of his patients were prepared to testify on his behalf about the positive quality of care they’ve received.

Some of Pilgram’s former patients, including Jeannie Harmer, confirmed they were eager to speak up in support of the doctor, but were forbidden from doing so before judgement was handed down by DOPL.

“They've just basically crucified him," she said.

Utah’s DOPL said, in a statement, that everything was done properly and that Pilgram received due process.

They deny he was the subject of any sort of witch hunt, as his patients allege. Rather, DOPL stated it is required by law to investigate complaints and Pilgram was found to have violated the law in the way he prescribed medication to his patients.

Now, as Pilgram tries to figure out what he's going to do with the rest of his life, he said his thoughts are with people who are in pain. He suspects that, if doctors fear being railroaded out of business, they're not going to be willing to treat people who are hurting.

"In retrospect, maybe it would have been wise not to deal with chronic pain patients,” he said. “Anybody who does is under great pressure from this state and my willingness to do so has cost me my license and my job."

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