Vanessa Brigan was 28 and undergoing treatment for a morphine addiction when she caused a car crash in 2012, killing two men. It turned out that she had been driving impaired after injecting a take-home dose of methadone, an opioid used to help treat addiction to other opioids.
She’d gotten the drug from Pinnacle Recovery Services in Brainerd. Her destination that day was home in Cloquet, about 100 miles away.
Brigan was eventually sentenced to six years in prison, but the families of the crash victims say the blame starts with the clinic that prescribed her the methadone.
Their wrongful death suit alleged that Dr. John Stroemer, who owns Pinnacle Recovery Services, should have better monitored the dosage prescribed to Brigan and told her not to use it before getting in her car. Pinnacle’s lawyers argued that the clinic couldn’t have been responsible for what Brigan did after she left his clinic.
According to Eyewitness News, Stroemer settled the suit just last week. It allows the victims’ families to collect about $8.5 million in damages from insurance, but Stroemer won’t have to pay a dime out of his own pocket. As far as the state’s concerned, he can continue being a doctor and operating Pinnacle.
Brigan’s fatal crash isn’t the only trouble in Stroemer’s file. Minnesota Board of Medical Practice records show that the Emory medical school graduate was disciplined eight times since 1989 for being hammered on the job, providing poor care, getting fired from a number of hospitals, and failing to transfer patients to other doctors when his license had been suspended.
A 1996 suspension notice shows that Stroemer was fired from Group Health in 1990 because he took way too long — sometimes two months — to complete his medical charts. In 1991, United Hospital hired Stroemer for a probationary six-month period, rather than the standard two-year appointment, in order to monitor him.
Over the next three years, Stroemer allegedly showed up to work at United smelling of alcohol on three separate occasions. He submitted to a chemical dependency exam at Fairview Riverside, but the results were inconclusive.
In January 1994, Stroemer was stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence, and his driver's license was suspended after he refused to be tested. In November of that year, an intervention by Physicians Serving Physicians dumped Stroemer back at Fairview Riverside, where he admitted that he had treated two patients after drinking two glasses of champagne.
Stroemer resigned from United after receiving a letter threatening termination due to his alleged drinking while treating patients. He found a new job at St. John’s Hospital, where in January 1996 three staff members reported that Stroemer delivered a breech baby with alcohol on his breath. Stroemer was fired the next day.
Most recently, the Board of Medical Practice told Stroemer he could no longer treat chronic pain and prescribe controlled substances. In order to avoid another suspension of his medical license, he had to submit to audits, sign up for some chemical dependency awareness courses, and read a couple books, including Responsible Opioid Prescribing, A Clinician's Guide. He was fined $3,600.
So why does Stroemer get to keep doctoring after all this? City Pages reached out to Stroemer for comment, but he didn't respond.
Ruth Martinez, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice staff, says Stroemer's license has been restricted heavily over the years as a result of chemical dependency. At one point after he regained unconditional licensure, he practiced medicine successfully without incident for nearly a decade. Currently, Stroemer's practicing privileges are so controlled that he's nearly precluded from directly treating patients.
"There's a big difference between owning a business and treating a patient, I'll just put it that way," Martinez says. "If you've got a clinic situation where the owner is put out of business, there are a whole lot of patients who are suddenly abandoned and have to be absorbed into the medical community."