Pain Clinics: Do Some Prescribe Legal Drugs Illegally?

PHOTO Chris Cuomo and others went undercover to visit several medical clinics in the Houston area during an investigation.PlayABC News
WATCH ABC News Investigates Rx Drug Abuse

Esther and Ken Scarborough live in a quiet town outside of Houston, Texas. It's a place that brings bittersweet memories for these parents who have suffered the ultimate loss because of easily obtained prescription drugs.

"He was just the joy of my life", Esther said. "He was the kind of kid that if you went to the mall even as a teenager, he would hold your hand [and] not worry about what anyone said about it."

They remember their only son, Chris, as a loving young man with a great sense of humor.

"You know--- he's not only your firstborn, but he's your son," Ken said. "He's your namesake. He was the one that my name was going to live through---[he] was very special."

A special person with a prescription drug problem, and one whom the Scarboroughs claim was taken advantage of by doctors.

"I cannot fathom how someone with that training and that education can stand there and ignore the fact that people are dying. And it increases every year", said Esther. "People are dying from what they're doing. And they have no conscience about it at all."

Their son Chris died in his own bed at the age of 25, back in September 2007, after an accidental overdose of pain pills. His parents claim he obtained the pills after a visit to a "pill mill" -- storefronts that often provide powerful narcotics without thorough patient exams and usually on a cash-only basis.

"My son's life was worth nothing but whatever the cost of this quote - unquote, "office visit," to walk in this pill mill, is -- that's all my son's life was worth," said Ken. "That's it. That's all---and I'm a little angry about that. And -- and I know I'm not the only one. My wife and I are -- by far, we're not the only two people, you know, going through this."

Despite a law passed in September aimed at fighting "pill mills", over 150 are still in existence, giving out prescriptions for millions of controlled drugs each year in the Houston area alone, according to the Texas Medical Board. The going rate on the street for pain medications like hydrocodone, a powerful pain reliever, and soma, a muscle relaxer, is around $4 a pill.

ABC News wanted to find out how easy it was to obtain these potent prescription drugs, so Chris Cuomo and others went undercover to visit several medical clinics in the Houston area. For Cuomo, all it took was cash, complaints of back, knee and neck pain and a few forms to fill out and he was seen by a physician's assistant at a rundown clinic. Within minutes, Cuomo was prescribed Lorcet, another form of the pain reliever, hydrocodone.

Four of the five people that went into various pain clinics in connection with the ABC investigation were able to obtain prescriptions for hundreds of hydrocodone and Soma pills. When mixed with an anti anxiety medication called Xanax, this combination of powerful drugs is often referred to as "the Houston cocktail;" however, you won't find this served at any local bar. This potent mix of hydrocodone, the muscle relaxer soma and Xanax can give the user a heroin-like euphoria without needle marks and it's also one of the most popular recreational drug combinations in the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

One of the men we sent in to a storefront pain clinic is a homeless man, who we will call Bill, as he didn't want his real name used. Bill goes to a clinic he had visited once before with ID and one hundred dollars cash in hand. He is seen quickly by a nurse after complaining of back pain. The nurse on staff conducts a cursory exam and a few minutes later, Bill leaves the clinic with a prescription for 120 Lorcet tablets, among other medications including Valium and Zantac.

"All I had to do was sit in the chair and, uh, that was it," said Bill. "They already had what I wanted written down."

We sent a different man into the same clinic, this time complaining of leg and back pain from a fall. Our hidden camera footage shows that also he met with a licensed vocational nurse and they struck up a lengthy conversation about night clubs while the assistant checked his email and talked on the phone. Our "patient" was never seen by a doctor, wasn't given a thorough exam but still leaves the clinic with prescriptions for 120 Lorcet tablets and 90 Soma pills. ABC News delivered these pills to authorities after he filled the prescriptions from a pharmacy recommended by the clinic.

A couple days later, with a camera crew in tow, Cuomo approached an employee at the clinic, which prescribed so easily the powerful and potentially addictive drugs to the people sent in, to get answers.

Here's an excerpt of their exchange:

Cuomo: "Well we sent people in here and they got lots and lots of pain medicine. One of them was a homeless man who just walked -- I had guys come in here and they got lots of pain medicine."

Clinic Employee: "They need to be in prison. They need to go in jail and the minute we find something like that we immediately discharge them and report them. We call the pharmacies and let them also know, so can you please give me their names?"

Cuomo: "So you are saying that you are unaware about this?"

Clinic Employee: "Oh absolutely -- of course uh uh -- you know what, this interview is over with.

Cuomo: "You know drugs don't end here, they just start here."

Later we contacted the nurse who handed out the prescriptions and he said he was just "trying to help out the patient with his pain." He added that he wanted to deal with the patients pain first before addressing an apparent high blood pressure problem and that it is the doctors name on the prescriptions, not his.

In a posting on the ABC News website, someone who said he was from the clinic the two homeless men visited vehemently denied that it improperly prescribes pain medication, saying "We here at our clinic are completely against pill mills and are working very hard to be a successful general medicine practice." The comment also noted that one of the patients was treated for high blood pressure in addition to receiving the prescriptions.

This harsh reality is one that Mari Robinson, Executive Director for the Texas Medical Board, knows all too well.

"What you have is two different types of scenarios. You've got people who are visiting these clinics to feed their own addictions." Robinson told Cuomo. "Even more insidious than that, though, are patients who don't take the medicines at all. They go, they get their prescriptions. They turn around, they sell the prescriptions to another party & and then they turn around and sell the drugs on the street. "

Often known on the street as "smurfing", recruiters and low-level dealers approach homeless people encouraging them to visit a pain clinic and acquire prescription medications in return for quick cash. Bill estimates he has gone on these types of prescription drug runs upwards of 75 times and after each one, pockets around 20 dollars per prescription he fills.

"Everybody knows this stuff is illegal. But they doing it because of easy pay. Easy money," said Bill.

"You will see that same sentence over and over and over again for all the patients," said Robinson. "They all seem to complain about the same things. That's how you know you're dealing with a mill and not something particularly authentic."

Similarly, Cuomo spoke to John Kowal, a police officer with the Houston Police Department assigned to the narcotics division, about the growing trend of street distribution of prescription narcotics.

"It's a growing epidemic everywhere," said Kowal. "We need to step it up. We need to see what we can do to at least be on top of our game."

But for Ken and Esther Scarborough, this vow of progress is too late to save their son. So they've taken matters into their own hands.

"We formed Parents Against Prescription Drug Abuse, to educate parents about this threat," said Esther. "I don't want any other mother or father to have to go in there and try to revive their child."

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Brennan McCord contributed to this report