EARLIER WARNING IGNORED; CRITICIZED IN 2002, PSYCHIATRIST NOW FACES 2 OTHER COMPLAINTS
By Hilary Waldman
August 11, 2008
On Feb. 14, 2002, Attorney General Richard Blumenthal asked Connecticut health regulators to yank Dr. Peter Benet’s license to practice medicine, calling the psychiatrist a “physician who sacrificed his patients for money and power.”
But the state didn’t take action. Benet continued to see patients. Now he is facing disciplinary action by the Department of Public Health, based on two unrelated complaints.
Those complaints, Blumenthal said, might have been prevented if the health department had listened to him six years ago when he recommended that Benet’s medical license be suspended or revoked.
“Tragically and unfortunately, these latest complaints vindicate the serious recommendations we made years ago,” Blumenthal said. “We issued a scathing report that left no doubt about this physician arbitrarily denying medically necessary care to patients.”
A spokesman for the Department of Public Health refused to explain why nothing was done six years ago, citing department policy.
Blumenthal said his office is now looking into possible further legal action against Benet.
At the time that Blumenthal issued his 2002 report, Benet was the founder and medical director of Psych Management Inc., a firm that Anthem Blue Cross-Blue Shield hired to manage mental health care for Anthem’s HMO.
Blumenthal found that Anthem’s low payments to Psych Management, also known as PMI, combined with financial misdeeds by Benet, resulted in at least one patient, and probably others, being denied necessary mental health care.
“Dr. Benet devised a plan to bilk [PMI] of its assets and profit personally,” Blumenthal’s report alleges. At the same time that Benet was denying care to patients, Blumenthal contended, Benet was using company funds to support a lavish lifestyle.
“This report presents a picture of a physician driven by the promise of wealth to disregard health needs,” Blumenthal said at the time.
Although Blumenthal’s investigation was related to the psychiatrist’s business practices, and not directly to his own care of patients, the attorney general said he had reason to suspect at that time that Benet could pose a risk to patients. He said his call for revocation or suspension of Benet’s license – a move Blumenthal called “highly extraordinary” – was an indication of the seriousness of his concerns.
Earlier this year, Benet agreed to pay a $3,000 fine as part of a consent order he reached with the state in connection with a complaint that Anne Kristine Blake filed. Blake started treatment at Benet’s South Windsor office about three months after Blumenthal issued his report in 2002. Although the names of patients who file complaints with the health department are kept confidential, Blake, of Manchester, has come forward and identified herself.
Health department investigators found that during his treatment of Blake, Benet “deviated from the applicable standard of care” by failing to adequately justify his diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder and by failing to coordinate his prescription for lithium – a drug used to treat bipolar disorder – with the diagnosis that Blake had a thyroid condition, documents show.
In addition to the fine, Benet was ordered to take a class in diagnosing, treating and documenting mood disorders.
The disciplinary action is listed on Benet’s physician profile, a public record designed to help would-be patients make more informed decisions when selecting a doctor. It was not, however, reported to the National Practitioner Data Bank, a federal clearinghouse of doctors who have run into disciplinary trouble.
William Gerrish, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Public Health, said the federal data bank requires the state to report only reprimands and other more serious disciplinary actions against a doctor’s license. He said the state was not required to report the action against Benet because it was only a fine.
A second case against Benet is scheduled to be heard by the Connecticut Medical Examining Board at hearings set to begin Sept. 26. The board is a volunteer panel of doctors that works alongside the health department to monitor members of the profession. Cases are usually sent to the examining board when a settlement cannot be worked out between the health department and the doctor.
In that case, a patient identified as P.M. sought care at Benet’s South Windsor office in 2004 – two years after the Blumenthal report. In a complaint to the health department, the patient accused Benet of prescribing a dangerous combination of medications.
In a statement of allegations against Benet sent to the medical examining board in May, health department investigators said that Benet prescribed two drugs to treat schizophrenia that could be harmful to people with high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes, both of which the patient had.
Benet also prescribed five medications for insomnia at once without ordering a sleep study or warning the patient about the possible side effects, which included deterioration of the patient’s mental status, the allegations say.
Benet said he would like to respond to the allegations against him, but cannot because he is bound by an obligation to protect his patient’s confidentiality. But he maintained that he did not harm either of the patients who made the complaints.
“If you look at the consent decree, it really comes down to technical documentation issues,” he said. “In neither case did any harm come to the patient from anything I did or didn’t do.”
The consent order in the Blake case says that the department reviewed a large sample of Benet’s documentation of cases that required coordinating prescriptions for mood disorders and other conditions and found that his “current practice meets the standard of care.”
Although Blumenthal’s allegations against Benet were the subject of press reports, Blake said she found no public records of complaints against Benet when she found his name on the Internet and made an appointment with him in May 2002.
She was recovering from a back injury and had been embroiled in a dispute with the state Department of Mental Retardation, where she had worked with patients in group homes since 1993.
Then on March 14, 2002, she learned that her closest friend, Renea Ervin, then 34, had died. Ervin’s husband, Michael Ervin, was eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. During the trial, Blake sat in the courtroom, holding her friend’s picture.
“It wasn’t just little stresses,” Blake said. “They were huge.”
But she said the medications Benet prescribed made matters worse.
“I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t talk, I was not a good mother, I couldn’t function,” Blake said.
After two years of treatment, Blake left Benet’s practice.
In July, she sued Benet in small claims court, seeking $5,000 in damages. She wants Benet to cover co-pays on future prescriptions of alprazolam, better known by its brand name, Xanax, and for future psychiatric care.
She said in an interview that she has been dependent on the tranquilizer since Benet prescribed it for her anxiety and panic attacks.
She said she is functioning well now, working as a volunteer on the presidential campaign of Barack Obama and traveling back and forth to Jamaica, where she donates books to poor, rural schoolchildren.
But she says she remains on disability and continues to be unable to work. And she wishes she had been warned before she sought care from Benet.
“I was very vulnerable,” Blake said. “I believed he was trying to help me.”