Seattle-area pain doctor agrees to face a lifetime of restrictions

Dr. Frank Li
Dr. Frank Li

A prominent Seattle-area pain doctor who once had offices in Tacoma and Olympia will face a lifetime of restrictions under a new agreement with health regulators.

The action brings to an end a sweeping investigation that closely examined the deaths of more than a dozen patients around the state.

Under the agreement, Dr. Frank Li will remain suspended from practicing medicine for at least another year and will face a range of other limitations, including a requirement that he prescribe controlled substances only when patients are in acute pain. And in those cases, Li will be allowed to prescribe only up to seven-day quantities.

Li was the medical director and sole shareholder of Seattle Pain Centers. The company’s eight clinics across the state were shuttered after the Washington Medical Commission suspended his license in 2016.

The resolution ends the case before it would go to a full hearing, which could have resulted in a dismissed case or the full revocation of Li’s license, said Micah Matthews, deputy executive director at the Washington Medical Commission.

Li will have to petition to get his license back after his yearlong suspension ends, Matthews said.

“We’re pleased with the order and how we feel it will protect patients,” Matthews said.

Under the agreement, Li doesn’t admit to wrongdoing. His attorney did not return messages seeking comment Thursday.

After working as a board-certified pain-management specialist in California, Li established his Seattle-area pain practice in 2008 and quickly added satellite offices around the state.

Officials said he went on to hire some practitioners with pain-management experience but also hired others without training or expertise.

Li has said he had “a mission to make quality pain care accessible.” But, by 2013, officials were scrutinizing his work.

The state Department of Labor and Industries denied Li’s application to prescribe drugs for the workers’-compensation program amid concerns about prescribing practices and the death of a patient.

A lab Li operated also was barred from billing the state’s Medicaid program in 2015 amid suspicions of fraud related to unnecessary urine screens.

Investigators with the state Attorney General’s Office delivered to the Medical Commission a wide-ranging report in 2015 that detailed concerns about Seattle Pain Centers. It included details on the deaths of 18 patients over five years and suggestions that many more patients may have been harmed, according to documents.

It took more than a year before the Medical Commission suspended Li’s license.

In addition to Tacoma and Olympia, Li had clinics in Seattle, Renton, Everett, Spokane, Poulsbo and Vancouver.

The final agreement details 16 patients who died with acute drug intoxication as a cause or a contributing cause of death. The agreement states the medical records of those patients “reveal a pattern of substandard medical care,” such as opioid-centric treatment plans at the patient’s initial visit, failures to adequately review patient medical histories and failures to consider or address risk factors.

Along with his suspension and lifetime restrictions on his ability to prescribe, Li faces a lifetime prohibition from hiring or directing anyone to prescribe opioids and a 10-year prohibition from owning or leading a pain-management practice, among other limitations. He also must submit to practice reviews by the Medical Commission.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has also revoked Li’s privileges.