House Bill Targets Chain Of N.H. Pain Clinics

Feb 18, 2015

The owner of the state’s largest chain of pain clinics would be forced to forfeit his financial interest in the practice if legislation pending in the House becomes law.

House Bill 517 would require physicians who lose their licenses to practice to cut their ownership ties to any health-care facilities.

The lead sponsor, Republican Rep. Don Leeman of Rochester, said the bill is aimed at one of the state’s most visible medical practices: Dr. O’Connell’s Pain Care Centers, Inc.

“Why would you want to have somebody who has lost their license to practice medicine to own a medical clinic?” Leeman said.

Michael J. O’Connell, Pain Care’s founder and chief executive officer, agreed to surrender his license in January 2012. Two woman had claimed they were PainCare patients while romantically involved with O'Connell. The settlement said the "romantic" relationships had commenced after "treatment" relationships had ended. 

The terms of the agreement allowed O’Connell, who admitted no wrongdoing, to continue operating a dozen PainCare clinics, including ambulatory surgical centers in Somersworth and Merrimack.

In 2011, the practice was ranked 15th on BusinessNH magazine’s list of the state’s 20 fastest growing companies, the only health care provider on the list. With reported revenues in the $15 million-to-$25 million range, Pain Care was among the top 100 private companies in New Hampshire that year, according to the magazine.

Taxpayers account for a sizeable portion of Pain Care’s revenues. In 2012, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services paid the practice more than $4 million for pain injections, office visits and drug screens.

O’Connell was indicted in May on two counts of felony witness tampering for allegedly attempting to interfere with the Board of Medicine investigation. He is accused of trying to induce the two women to recant their statements to the board.

O’Connell and Pain Care are also defendants in lawsuits filed in New Hampshire and Massachusetts related to the 2012 outbreak of meningitis. The outbreak, which sickened hundreds and killed 64 people in 20 states, was traced to contaminated cortisteroids from the New England Compounding Center.

According to state health officials, 742 patients received tainted injections at Pain Care clinics in Merrimack, Somersworth and Newington. State officials confirmed nine cases of fungal meningitis and five cases of septic arthritis caused by the injections.

O’Connell also owns Salmon Falls Family Health Care in Somersworth, a cosmetic laser center and a urine-testing lab, as well as a facility that treats people addicted to heroin and prescription painkillers. 

Leeman acknowledge he introduced HB 517 on behalf of his personal physician, Terry Bennett.

Bennett and O’Connell are engaged in a bitter legal dispute dating back to 2010, when Bennett transferred ownership of his Rochester practice to O’Connell for $1 and an employment contract. O’Connell fired Bennett in May 2012 and moved the staff and patient records to Somersworth.

Bennett says the circumstances that led O’Connell to surrender his license should also prohibit him from profiting off the practice.

“He has surrendered his license for ethical misbehavior, and that should be enough,” Bennett says. “Most doctors who surrender their licenses slink off into never-never land, you never hear from them again.”

O’Connell did not respond to requests for comment. But Michael McLaughlin, a lobbyist and attorney with Shaheen & Gordon, told a House committee last week that Leeman’s bill is “a disgrace to the legislature.”

“This bill is aimed at one person, and it’s for revenge,” he said.

New Hampshire does not prohibit non-physicians from owning health-care practices or employing physicians. But many states enforce so-called corporate practice of medicine doctrines aimed at ensuring health-care decisions are solely in the hands of physicians, not corporate owners and investors.

More than a half-dozen states have carved out specific ownership requirements for pain clinics, which are often the source of large quantities of prescription painkillers.

Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and Kentucky, for example, require that pain clinics be owned and operated by physicians, while five states prohibit anyone convicted of a felony from owning a pain clinic.

Editors note: This story was updated to clarify the terms of O'Connell's settlement with the Board of Medicine.