Doc Gets Prison for COVID ‘Cure’; Proton Therapy Gold Rush; Blackfeet Opioid Crisis

Welcome to the latest edition of Investigative Roundup, highlighting some of the best investigative reporting on healthcare each week.

Doctor Who Promised COVID Cure Gets Jail Time

A California doctor who prescribed hydroxychloroquine as part of a “covid treatment kit” that he guaranteed would cure the disease was sentenced last week to 30 days in prison and a year-long home confinement, the Washington Post reported.

Jennings Ryan Staley, MD, previously pleaded guilty to one count of importation contrary to law, admitting he attempted to smuggle hydroxychloroquine into the US by working with a Chinese supplier that would mislabel 26 pounds of hydroxychloroquine as “yam extract,” according to the US Department of Justice.

After people alerted the FBI to promotional emails from Staley’s Skinny Beach Med Spa, an undercover agent posed as a customer. The agent asked about the treatment kit, and was assured by Staley that hydroxychloroquine was a “magic bullet” and “amazing cure.” He added that COVID-19 “literally disappears in hours” after taking the drug.

Staley also offered the FBI agent prescriptions for Xanax and Viagra, despite not having evaluated him. Staley later admitted that he had lied to federal agents. He also admitted, as part of a plea agreement, that he had obtained hydroxychloroquine by pretending to be one of his employees and filling a prescription. His medical license is now suspended.

Inside the Proton Therapy Gold Rush

Proton therapy centers are taking off in the world of cancer treatment, yet the benefits of the therapy remain unclear, and its financial burden can be substantial, according to STAT.

Proton beam therapy is a type of targeted radiation that may have an advantage over traditional radiation for tumors close to the spine and brain. But research hasn’t yet shown that it’s more effective for treating tumors in other parts of the body, STAT reported.

After a Medicare decision to cover proton therapy regardless of the type of tumor, however, investors and health systems have rushed to build facilities and machines that will deliver it. The centers are often used as a marketing tool for health systems and cancer programs generally, and draw in patients, according to STAT.

“There is something that gives prestige to health care systems when they can say they have the newest technology,” Steven Ullmann, PhD, of the University of Miami told STAT. Patients who don’t qualify for proton therapy also tend to stay within that health system for cancer treatment.

However, proton therapy centers take on enormous debt and don’t always bring in enough patients to offset it. The facilities and equipment can cost millions of dollars, and a number of centers are either losing money or going bankrupt.

This hasn’t stopped Yale New Haven Health, Penn Medicine, and companies like Proton International to bank on the future of the treatment and research to support it, “because they expect proton therapy will become the standard for cancer treatment,” the report stated .

Blackfeet Nation Disproportionately Affected by Opioid Crisis

In parts of the Mountain West, fentanyl overdoses are rising, and Native Americans are being disproportionately affected, according to Kaiser Health News.

The opioid overdose rate for Native Americans in Montana from 2019 to 2021 was twice that of white people, and resources for treatment are scarce, KHN reported.

One mother, Marla Ollinger, lost her son, Justin Lee Littledog, to a fentanyl overdose shortly after he moved in with her and started work at a local casino. His death was one of four in one week on the Blackfeet reservation in March of 2020, leading the tribal leaders to declare a state of emergency.

The Blackfeet have assembled a task force to address the opioid crisis, and Montana and Wyoming tribes have joined with the Montana Healthcare Foundation to conduct a feasibility study to open their own treatment center. But communities like Blackfeet Nation remain under-resourced and the federal Indian Health Service severely underfunded, the report stated.

Only two detox beds were available at the Blackfeet nation’s nearest IHS hospital, and a local treatment center didn’t have people trained to deal with opioid withdrawal, KHN reported. Buprenorphine and methadone clinics are 30 to 100 miles away, which can make it impossible for patients seeking medication-assisted treatment to get the medication daily or weekly.

“You could connect historical trauma, unresolved traumas in general, and grief into what makes our community vulnerable,” Blackfeet tribal police investigator Misty LaPlant told KHN. “If you look at the impact of colonialism and indigenous communities and people, there’s a correlation there.”

  • Sophie Putka is an enterprise and investigative writer for MedPage Today. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Discover, Business Insider, Inverse, Cannabis Wire, and more. She joined MedPage Today in August of 2021. Follow

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