Within days, Boogaard, the Wild’s 6-foot-7 enforcer, was bouncing from one team doctor to another seeking a steady stream of powerful painkillers. He got them — 165 pills in the first four weeks, 432 by the end of the season, according to a lawsuit filed last month by Boogaard’s family.
In court, the family blames the National Hockey League for not doing enough to prevent the tragedy that led to his death, at 28, in 2011.
But the lawsuit also sheds light on a problem that the medical profession is only now struggling to face: its own role in a drug-abuse epidemic that kills 15,000 people a year.
It started innocently enough, as doctors began an aggressive push in the 1990s to help patients control pain from injuries and accidents. But it morphed into “one of the biggest public health crises that we’ve faced in a long time,” said Dr. Patrick Courneya, medical director of the HealthPartners health plans. “And it was self-inflicted.”
Today, nearly 80 percent of the world’s prescription painkillers are used in the United States, said Carol Falkowski, former director of alcohol and drug abuse for the state of Minnesota. Nationally, 219 million prescriptions for those pills were written in 2011, she said — enough to medicate every man, woman and child “every four hours for a month.”
As the number of prescriptions soared, so has the death toll from accidental overdoses — an estimated 125,000 Americans in the last decade.
Now, the unintended consequences have become so alarming that the Minnesota Medical Association and other medical leaders are calling for a dramatic change in practice to cut the number of pain pills that doctors routinely prescribe.
Despite their best intentions, doctors have become too cavalier about handing out painkillers, said Dr. David Thorson, chairman of the Minnesota Medical Association. “We are overprescribing these drugs,” he said.
The Boogaard family’s lawsuit opens a window on how a young athlete became hooked on painkillers, and how he managed to feed his addiction by going from doctor to doctor.
And it hints at the challenges facing the medical profession.
Boogaard was known as an enforcer, the guy who roughed up opposing players on the ice. So when a fight broke out during a game against the Florida Panthers on Oct. 16, 2008, his broken tooth was just another occupational hazard.
Four days later, Boogaard got a prescription for 15 pills of hydrocodone — the narcotic in Vicodin — from Dr. Kyle Edlund, a team dentist, according to a detailed chart in the lawsuit. Three days after that, he got a prescription for five Vicodin pills from Dr. Sheldon Burns, the team medical director. The chart shows that Boogaard got at least 115 more prescription pain pills in the next 24 days from five team doctors or dentists, all but one explicitly for a “tooth injury.”
During that time, Boogaard even sought pills from an opposing team’s physician, Dr. Arthur Ting, who was once accused of writing painkiller prescriptions for friends and athletes under fake names. Ting, a team doctor for the San Jose Sharks, was still on probation by the California Medical Board when he authorized 40 pills for Boogaard, records show.
By September 2009, the lawsuit alleges, Boogaard was “addicted to these pain pills, often ingesting up to 10 per day.”
William Gibbs, a lead lawyer for the family, says the NHL was paying for the drugs and was “in the best position to know whether team doctors, dentists, medical directors, oral surgeons — what have you — were overprescribing prescription pain pills.” The NHL declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
Edlund, the team dentist, disputed the account in the lawsuit, saying: “I actually never gave him any Vicodin at all.” He said he was not part of any system that freely gave medications to players. “If a player comes in with a legitimate broken front tooth, and it’s something that would cause pain in a normal person, then I would call the pharmacy and I might give [the patient’s] physician a call.”