FLORENCE – Chris Christensen was known as the “feel good doctor,” according to one former patient who was interviewed by detectives in the months leading up to a raid of the Florence medical practice where he was allegedly doling out vast quantities of controlled substances.
One of Christensen’s former employees described opioid prescriptions as a “money maker,” estimating that his office took in between $1,500 and $2,000 in cash from patients all over Montana and Idaho every day. And local pharmacists described Christensen’s huge prescription amounts as “ridiculous” and “reckless.”
A multi-agency taskforce comprising Ravalli County sheriff’s detectives, federal DEA agents and other authorities, raided Christensen’s home and office on April 1 as a result of a two-year investigation into the former doctor’s prescription writing practices. No charges have yet been filed in the case.
Ravalli County District Court Judge James Haynes ordered the search warrant application unsealed on May 16, although many of the names of people interviewed for the investigation were redacted.
According to the search warrant application, filed by Ravalli County sheriff’s detective Jase Basnaw, the aforementioned former patient of Christensen’s also stated that she went to Christensen because she wanted pills. She also said that her medical records weren’t checked, she simply had to fill out a generic form to indicate her pain level and that Christensen would encourage methadone because it was cheap.
She also stated that Christensen “will pretty much keep increasing your dosage until you’re happy” and that he never recommended any physical therapy or non-drug treatments. Her story was similar to other patients interviewed. When writing a prescription for an anti-anxiety drug, Christensen allegedly told the patient that “sometimes people just need to get outta reality.”
A local pharmacist, whose name was redacted in the court documents, stopped filling orders written by Christensen because so many people were showing up with prescriptions for unusually high doses. She confronted Christensen about her concerns and she later told detectives that Christensen “chewed me out and told me ‘who are you to tell me what to prescribe?’ ” She told investigators that Christensen showed a lack of medical judgment, had more illegitimate patients than legitimate ones and had lied to a pharmacy manager.
Another pharmacist told investigators that Christensen “prescribes atrocious amounts of narcotics. He’s way beyond what everybody else is prescribing, even pain doctors. He’s just creating addicts. He has zero concern or care for his patients.”
Christensen’s medical license was suspended by the Montana Board of Medical Examiners on April 7. The board’s own investigation revealed that Christensen was running a cash-only practice and that he regularly doled out vast quantities of prescription drugs to various patients, including opioids like methadone. The board also cited the deaths of two of Christensen’s Idaho patients due to overdoses, although he was never found guilty of a crime in those cases.
Christensen was indicted by a federal grand jury in the U.S. District Court of Idaho in 2005 for the distribution of controlled substances outside the course of a professional practice and without a legitimate purpose. When Christensen was found not guilty by a jury in 2011, he was granted his registration by the Drug Enforcement Agency. He moved from Idaho to Montana shortly thereafter and began a practice in Victor. He then moved his practice to Florence.
According to court documents unsealed last Friday, the investigation by Montana authorities into Christensen began in earnest on May 2, 2012. That day, detective Basnaw received a call from a mental health provider in Ravalli County who wished to remain anonymous, but who had concerns about two of his patients who were being overprescribed pain and anti-anxiety medicines from Christensen.
The informant reported that one of the patients was hospitalized after overdosing on pain pills and another was “so drugged up, that they could not be evaluated” for health care purposes. The informant also advised that he was not the only mental health care provider having these difficulties with Christensen’s prescribing practices.
An agent with the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation, Steve Trollope, visited pharmacists in the area on June 5, 2012. The pharmacists reported that Christensen was writing larger than normal prescriptions for Schedule II drugs, defined by the DEA as drugs with a high potential for abuse.
Another anonymous informant called Basnaw on Sept. 20, 2012. The informant stated that there had been a recent increase in the sale of methadone and syringes, and attributed this increase to Christensen. The informant said that Christensen had been prescribing large amounts of pain pills to numerous patients and that these patients could be diverting the drugs to street markets.
Detectives interviewed several other pharmacists, whose names have been redacted. The pharmacists indicated that Christensen was not properly “tapering off” patients from their medications and was routinely prescribing larger doses than any other physician typically prescribes.
One pharmacist told detectives that Christensen was writing prescriptions for more Schedule II and III narcotics than any other doctor, and patients were traveling to Big Creek Family Medicine from all over Montana and Idaho. Many pharmacists were refusing to fill Christensen’s prescriptions because they were concerned about the safety of the patients. They described Christensen’s practices as “reckless.”
When interviewed, another pharmacist indicated that he believed that the patients could not possibly be taking all of the pills being prescribed by Christensen, and that he suspected that patients were selling the drugs on the street.
On March 19, 2013, detectives interviewed a physician assistant, Robin Rice, who is a former employee of Christensen. Rice said she has known Christensen for 35 years and described him as a “brilliant man who thinks outside the box.”
However, Rice stated that she and Christensen had a “considerable disagreement” regarding the large amounts of opioids being prescribed by Christensen. When she confronted him, he replied, “This is the way this practice operates.”
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Rice gave examples of patients who received prescriptions but then “lost” the pills by the next week. She said it did not matter what the patient’s excuse was as to why the drugs were lost. Christensen would always just re-write the prescription.
Rice said that she wasn’t sure how money in the office was handled, but Christensen’s wife and daughter both worked in the office.
Rice estimated that Christensen’s practice included about 2,000 patients, 80 percent of whom were “chronic pain” patients. Of those, Rice estimated that between 15-20 percent were what she termed “pill seekers,” and that there had been a big increase in those types of patients over the last seven or eight months. Many had been turned away from other clinics, or had traveled from faraway places in Montana, including a “rash” of college kids from Great Falls.
One pharmacist told investigators that people would show up with “ridiculous prescriptions” from Christensen and that they were obvious addicts who were only interested in “abusing and snorting” prescriptions.
When asked whether there was a particular diagnosis used by Christensen to justify prescribing pain medication to patients with no clear medical need, Rice said that Christensen would often use “sacroiliac dysfunction” as the cause of the patient’s pain. Christensen would then prescribe Dilaudid to those patients.
The state medical board found that Christensen referred to one such prescription as “$3,000 worth of Ds,” referring to both the street name of Dilaudid and the drug’s value on the street. The patient was surprised that her doctor would tell her this information.
Rice told investigators that she thought Christensen was “doing wrong,” and that he purposely lacked documentation in his patient records because he saw that as a level of protection for him against authorities who may check the records. Rice also said that Christensen “likes (to prescribe) methadone because it’s cheap and longer acting.”
Rice said that Christensen would often see three or four new patients every day, some traveling from as far away as Havre, and that they would always pay cash for the visit, usually around $200. The cost of an office visit to Christensen for a prescription refill every four weeks was approximately $65. Rice estimated that Christensen’s practice took in an income of about $1,500 to $2,000 per day. She said that he had increased costs from renovating his home, and that he started seeing more and more patients and spending less and less time with each one before writing prescriptions.
“Opioids are a money maker for him and I think that’s the motive behind his practice,” Rice told investigators.
One of Christensen’s employees was charged with administering a “standardized screening test” to filter out possible drug seekers, but nobody ever failed the test, even if they were identified as “high risk.”
Rice also stated that Christensen “hates law enforcement” and that he thought the law and regulations are “all a big joke.”
While executing the search warrant, detectives with the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office recovered marijuana, testosterone and prescription drugs prescribed to other patients in Christensen’s home. They also found a Tupperware tote with two jars of marijuana buds, a jar of marijuana oil, a marijuana emulsion stick and paraphernalia. They also recovered four vials of Stadol, a Schedule IV drug, and one vial of testosterone enanthate, a Schedule III drug. There were also five bottles of prescription drugs that were prescribed to other patients in Christensen’s spare bedrooms.
In unmarked cabinets at Christensen’s medical practice, Big Creek Family Medicine and Urgent Care, authorities found a sealed bag with an unknown amount of pills with a “to be disposed” note, a blue prescription bottle containing 8 zolpidem pills, a prescription bottle for a patient containing 30 morphine sulfate tablets and various other containers with unknown pills.
They found a daily billing record labeled “trade for services” and a bio baggie with needles on a bookshelf. They also found a cash bag containing cash, receipts and miscellaneous papers in a safe in a closet.
Basnaw found evidence in a log book that Christensen was taking back unused narcotics from patients and redistributing the narcotics to other patients, which is illegal under Montana law and led authorities to write in the search warrant application that they had reason to believe that Christensen was committing the crime of distribution of dangerous drugs.
In a recorded interview, Christensen allegedly confessed to investigators that he took back controlled substances and provided them to some of his patients. He also allegedly confessed that he mixed “take back” pills with cat litter and buried them at his house and that he also burned and buried syringes and other medical waste.
According to the court documents, one female patient of Christensen’s was determined by Missoula County sheriff’s coroner Robert Kennedy to have died of cardiac arrest, respiratory arrest and a high possibility of a drug overdose. The date of death, the type of drugs prescribed to her and the name of the woman were redacted in court documents, although investigators determined she probably hadn’t been following her prescription.
At Christensen’s office, detectives also found a guide manual on dosing for opioid dependence, a book called the “Practical Guide for Prescribing Controlled Substances,” a book called “When Pain Killers Become Dangerous” and one called “Are Your Prescriptions Killing You?”
One former patient, who admitted to being a drug addict, told detectives that Christensen was getting “money and power” from dealing drugs. She was overdosing and having seizures because she was getting too many pills, but she said that Christensen enabled her abuse.
Once, she overdosed and had to spend the day at Christensen’s office recovering. Her daughter was taken away from her by the state Child and Protective Services agency. Detectives asked her how Christensen benefited from distributing drugs.
“What is the benefit to a drug dealer? You feel like all these people need you, they want you, they love you, they are nice to you, they are willing to pay whatever it is to get to see you, and he’s busy all day long,” she replied.