‘She saved my life’: Patients defend doctor accused of over-prescribing opioids

Complaint filed with medical board could result in revocation of Arcata doctor's license

The outside of Dr. Connie Basch’s medical clinic, where she offers alternative pain management methods, such as acupuncture, nutrition guidance and educational opportunities on pain management topics. Basch is being accused of over-prescribing medication to five patients and may have her medical license revoked by the state Medical Board. (Sonia Waraich — The Times Standard)
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Elvia Saavedra was suffering from several health issues that were causing her a lot of pain before she met Dr. Connie Basch. Saavedra said she was getting prescribed opioids to manage her pain but they were having a horrible impact on her life. Basch, who runs the Full Circle Center for Integrative Medicine, helped her ween herself off of those opioids and even helped her get a job.

“She saved my life,” Saavedra said.

That’s what several of Basch’s patients said about her — she saved their lives.

But the Arcata-based doctor may have her medical license revoked by the Medical Board of California for prescribing excessive amounts of opioids, failing to taper patients off of opioids and failing to keep coherent medical records. The complaint was filed May 8.

Saavedra and Basch’s other patients said they were angered and confused by the board’s decision because they said the doctor helped them reduce their own opioid use.

Jean Paulson, one of Basch’s patients, said the whole process is collaborative and Basch simply provides the patients with tools to help them manage their pain in whatever way makes the most sense for them.

“The thing that can’t be stressed enough is that there’s patient involvement at every level,” Basch said.

Basch gave them the resources to combat their pain in other ways, the patients said. A couple of her patients said they’ve gotten off opioids altogether since seeing Basch.

Basch offers her patients the opportunity to be a part of a healing group for people with chronic pain that Saavedra is a part of. The group receives lectures on managing pain without the use of opioids, using methods such as meditation and nutrition instead.

The lectures cover everything from nutrition to neuroplasticity, which is related to the flexibility of the brain and its ability to change. On Thursday, the group was learning about the Feldenkrais Method, through which individuals can learn to ease their pain by becoming more aware of their body’s movements and how they hold themselves.

“I’ve never been in support of opioid use as the sole method of pain management,” Basch said.

The investigators only looked at five of her patients with the highest opioid prescription doses, Basch said. They didn’t collect a random sample of her patients, which would have painted a different picture, Basch said.

The medical board’s accusations also state that Basch offered alternative pain management methods to the five patients mentioned in the complaint, but that the doses she gave those patients sometimes increased and the records regarding their treatment plan were incoherent.

That is the result of a problem with her medical export system, Basch said. The electronic forms have since been corrected and reflect the hard copy of her records showing that the five patients were being tapered off of their medication.

“The reality is these patients came to me on very, very high doses of opioids,” Basch said.

Patients can’t be taken off the opioids all at once because long-term use results in changes to the brain, Basch said. Tapering individuals off the opioids is a long process that involves skill-building, she said.

The patients said it took them years to find Basch and would need to travel to Santa Rosa or further to get the kind of treatment the doctor provides.

Nina Ziccone said she’s been suffering from fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain throughout the body, and attempted suicide in 2008 because of her pain despite using prescription opioids.

“I didn’t want to get back into a doctor’s office that was just going to throw pills at me again,” Ziccone said.

When she began looking for doctors again, Ziccone said they kept trying to prescribe her Vicodin, a prescription opioid, even though she said that didn’t work for her. Basch was the only doctor who listened to that, Ziccone said.

“She really listened to me,” Ziccone said. “She’s the first physician I think I’ve ever had that really listened to me and said, ‘OK, I’ll work with you and help you find something for your pain.’”

The patients at the healing group said Basch helped them rediscover their agency and realize they had power in being able to manage their pain.

“She’s helped me learn what this thing called pain is,” Ziccone said, “and how I can affect it, too.”

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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