HAMILTON – A Florence physician was arrested at his home Thursday morning and charged with more than 400 felonies, including two counts of negligent homicide.
Dr. Chris Christensen, 67, has been under investigation since his Florence clinic, Big Creek Family Medicine, and his home were raided by a joint local, state and federal drug task force in April 2014.
Christensen was charged with providing methadone to two patients from Missoula who overdosed and died, according to an affidavit filed in the case. In addition to the two negligent homicide charges, Christensen faces 389 counts of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs and nine counts of criminal endangerment.
Prosecutors allege Christensen distributed dangerous drugs to patients outside the course of his professional practice between July 2011 and April 2014.
Christensen’s business operated almost exclusively in cash, the affidavit stated. Financial records indicated the business earned about $2,500 a day and grossed more than $500,000 annually.
At a news conference Thursday, the special agent in charge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s Denver Field Division, Barbara Roach, said Christensen’s patients traveled to his clinic from 10 different states, from as far away as Oregon, Nevada and even Ohio. In Montana, Christensen’s patients came from 62 different cities and towns.
Roach said investigators compared the number of prescriptions for controlled substances written by Christensen against seven other physicians from similarly sized communities. Christensen wrote more prescriptions for those type of medications than all of the seven doctors combined, she said.
The case against Christensen focuses on 11 patients selected by the Ravalli County Attorney’s Office and the drug task force. In nearly all of those cases, Christensen neither contacted the patients’ former physicians nor reviewed medical records before prescribing drugs including methadone, oxycodone and Dilaudid, the affidavit stated.
One of the patients allegedly admitted to investigators that he went to Christensen to obtain drugs to sell in the Bakken oil fields. He told the investigators the amount of the drugs he was obtaining from Christensen was “obscene,” according to the affidavit.
During one appointment, the man said Christensen handed him a prescription and allegedly said, “this is a $6,000 prescription I’m giving you,” referring to the street value of the drugs. The man said he was shocked because that was exactly the amount of money he would make selling the drugs in the oil fields.
Another patient told investigators that Christensen was the “best drug dealer he ever had,” according to the affidavit.
In both of the negligent homicide cases, the affidavit stated the two patients had issues with drug addiction.
Kara Philbrick-Lenker was 43 years old and had previously overdosed on methadone.
Her former physician had refused a request to change her medication to methadone five days before she visited Christensen’s office because of the woman’s history of overdose and the fact that she was combining alcohol with her consumption of prescription medications, according to the affidavit.
During Philbrick-Lenker’s first and only visit to Christensen’s office on March 13, 2013, the doctor prescribed both Methadone and Dilaudid. Three days later, she died of an overdose. The cause of death was determined to be mixed toxicity drug overdose, including methadone, the affidavit said.
Greg Griffin was 38 years old when he died on April 2, 2012, two days after receiving a methadone prescription from Christensen.
Griffin had been a patient of Christensen’s since 2008 when the doctor signed off on a medical marijuana card. At that time, Christensen said Griffin suffered from chronic pain, post-traumatic arthritis and neuropathy, without completing an examination or doing tests, the affidavit said.
Another physician had prescribed Suboxone to treat Griffin’s long-standing drug addiction, as well as other drugs to treat anxiety and insomnia.
On Feb. 22, 2012, Christensen met with Griffin and noted in his medical file that Griffin could no longer afford Suboxone, writing that he had not abused medications for years. During that appointment, Christensen changed Griffin’s treatment plan from addiction to pain management and prescribed methadone.
Christensen never obtained Griffin’s medical records from his other physician, or consulted with her regarding the change in treatment plan, the affidavit stated.
On March 21, 2012, Griffin was evaluated by Ryan Marchand, a licensed addiction counselor employed by Christensen to conduct drug-dependency evaluations. Marchand’s report indicated that Griffin was a candidate for “severe abuse or dependency to opiates” and a “high risk for opioid therapy.”
Christensen prescribed 10 milligrams of methadone to Griffin on March 30. Griffin died of an overdose at his home April 2. An analysis of his blood chemistry at the time revealed high levels of methadone, alprazolam and doxepin.
Before his employment under Christensen, Marchand was a patient who initially met with Christensen to address chronic neck pain related to a mountaineering accident and subsequent failed surgeries to correct the problem.
Marchand told investigators Christensen offered him a list of 20 different types of medications to select from at his initial appointment. After consulting with Christensen, Marchand said he selected methadone and Dilaudid and received a prescription for them.
Between Dec. 22, 2011, and Feb. 17, 2014, Christensen wrote 92 prescriptions to Marchand for drugs including methadone, Dilaudid, amphetamine salts and Adderall.
Marchand told investigators he was employed by Christensen to cover for him. Marchand said “weeding out (patients) is not part of (Christensen’s) philosophy. ... He believes that everyone can decide what’s best for themselves.”
After the DEA attempted to contact Marchand, he said he alerted Christensen. The doctor allegedly replied “the DEA can’t do anything to me,” the affidavit stated.
Christensen was indicted in U.S. District Court in Idaho in 2005 on 18 counts of distribution of controlled substances outside the course of a professional practice and without legitimate medical purpose. He was acquitted on those charges in 2010.
The Business Standards Division of the Montana Board of Labor and Industry suspended Christensen’s medical license in April 2014. In May of this year, after Christensen acknowledged some unprofessional conduct, his license was reinstated with some restrictions to treat patients and write prescriptions. The DEA had not reinstated Christensen’s registration that would allow him to prescribe controlled substances.
Christensen was in the process of reopening his practice in Florence when he was arrested.
Christensen will be arraigned on the charges at 1:30 p.m. Friday in Ravalli County District Judge James Haynes’ courtroom. Bail was set at $200,000.
The maximum penalty Christensen could face is 388 life sentences, plus 135 years in prison and fines of $20 million.
At Thursday’s news conference, County Attorney Bill Fulbright offered appreciation to the “many members” of the medical community, including physicians and pharmacists, as well as private citizens, who came forward to express their concerns about Christensen.
“This has been a long process,” Fulbright said. “More than a year of investigation work was completed before search warrants were issued for Dr. Christensen’s office and home. Those searches ... resulted in the task force seizing 4,718 medical patient files, and 1,500 additional files for medical marijuana patients.
“The ability of the detectives and agents to process, review and collate thousands of generally disorganized medical files is a testament to the remarkable resources of the DEA, for which we are extremely grateful,” Fulbright said.