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Tampa doctor vows to fight federal charges that he overprescribes pain medication

TAMPA — The Tuesday morning raid began just after 9.

Armed with guns and an indictment, law enforcement agents swarmed the W Busch Boulevard pain management clinic of Dr. John Rew. As patients waited in the lobby, agents led the 83-year-old doctor out in handcuffs and removed his computers and patient files.

A day later, that chaotic scene gave way to one of anger and desperation.

Rew sat hunched inside his locked, darkened office Wednesday afternoon, unapologetic about his methods and adamant about his innocence. He promised to fight the federal charges that accuse him of overprescribing oxycodone, hydrocodone and Xanax to a government witness.

Outside, one of his chronic pain patients sobbed in a friend's car. She said she was out of pills — and options.

"It's a big mess," said Theresa Strahorn, 46, of St. Petersburg. "I have nowhere to go."

• • •

Rew said he has been prescribing narcotics to patients out of his strip mall office since 2002. The retired anesthesiologist has been in the business of pain management since the mid 1970s.

In 2007, more than 500 people fatally overdosed on prescription drugs in the Tampa Bay area, three times as many who fatally overdosed on illicit drugs such as cocaine and heroin.

That same year, according to Rew, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent visited his clinic and told the doctor that he was the state's top prescriber of narcotics. But Rew, who has no disciplinary history with the state, didn't scale back.

Officials didn't either.

Last spring, the DEA and Tampa Police Department began sending a wired witness into Rew's office. The man claimed to be a professional poker player who needed pills to help his back through long spells sitting at card tables, Rew told a St. Petersburg Times reporter. Between April 2008 and January 2009, he visited 10 times.

"He kept bugging me for higher doses," Rew recalled. "He seemed to be such a reasonable fellow. I wasn't concerned about him."

After being arrested and taken to jail and court, Rew was released from custody Tuesday evening on $50,000 bail. A federal magistrate ordered him to stop practicing medicine until the case is resolved.

Back at his office Wednesday with little to do, Rew spoke calmly about his situation.

He said he prescribed medication, often liberally, to people that he believed were truly suffering from pain. He didn't try to alleviate their pain completely, but he aimed to give them a decent quality of life.

"As they got into these higher doses, I was pretty careful about adding on," he said. "I don't think I've caused people to become addicts."

• • •

Rew's office phone rang insistently Wednesday. Some of his patients, unaware of his arrest, drove from as far as Pinellas and Pasco counties for their scheduled appointments.

Office closed until further notice. Sorry. Call tomorrow please, read a sign on the door.

Several patients described Rew as a careful doctor who required medical records and referrals before he would see a patient or consider prescribing narcotics. Shea Sandy, a 37-year-old Hudson resident, said she was virtually bedridden for seven years with chronic pain until she became Rew's patient in the summer.

"It's not like I walked in here one day and he gave me a large quantity of pills," said Strahorn, who has been treated by Rew for five or six years. "It looks like a lot to some people. But you do start building a tolerance."

Rew estimates he treats 350 to 375 patients through his solo practice. The federal magistrate told him that he could help transfer his patients' medical records or care to the appropriate providers.

The files, however, are now in the custody of the DEA's Tampa office. Patients can contact that office to learn how to obtain a copy of their medical records, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced Wednesday.

Rew and his patients said finding doctors willing to prescribe such high levels of narcotics won't be easy. They worried about withdrawal, or worse.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.

>>Fast facts

Get copies of files

Due to Dr. John Rew's arrest, his patients' medical records are now being held by the Drug Enforcement Administration in Tampa. To obtain a copy of those files, patients can call (813) 287-5160 and ask for a law enforcement agent in the tactical diversion squad.

Tampa doctor vows to fight federal charges that he overprescribes pain medication 03/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 11:24pm]
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