By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Twin Cities family wants answers after they believe a psychiatrist went too far in prescribing medications to their son and brother.

Mike Arens died 18 months ago. WCCO found the doctor writing his prescriptions has been in trouble before.

WCCO investigates the psychiatrist who’s been on the state’s radar for decades and the upcoming changes to better track what medications Minnesotans take.

Known for his generosity and signature smile, Mike Arens grew up the middle boy and a three-sport athlete in a tightknit family.

(credit: CBS)

It’s now Mike’s baby brother, John, who’s left to wonder how they got here in a few short years.

“Mike had a huge heart,” John Arens said.

“We were typical siblings where we played together and fought together and grew up together,” he added.

After graduating from Eden Prairie High School, Mike went on to build one of the most successful window cleaning companies in the Twin Cities. But years of climbing ladders and weight-lifting took their toll. Arens had hip surgery in 2011 at the age of 50.

“I think that’s when his pain addiction started,” John Arens said.

“I think any family is susceptible to it and it started out very innocently enough,” he said.

His family had their suspicions, he’d be up all night, sleep during the day, and go days without answering his phone. All as his business started to take a dive.

“Mike was stubborn and head strong that he didn’t have a problem and whatever problem he did have he could fix on his own,” Arens said.

Finally, three years into his pill addiction, his parents and siblings staged an intervention. Arens told them he didn’t need any help.

“The doctor that was involved in the intervention promised us that Mike would not make it, he would die. He expected Mike to die within a year and he was right,” Arens said.

A friend found Mike Arens dead in his Bloomington home in October 2015. His autopsy revealed he had heart disease and a “history of multisubstance dependence” — leaving his family to piece together how it started.

“I can’t imagine how someone couldn’t become an addict with that much opportunity,” Arens said.

Inside Arens’ house, they found hundreds of empty pill bottles once filled with dozens of different types of prescription drugs.

When they looked closer, one doctor’s name appeared again and again.

Dr. Faruk Abuzzahab is an 85-year-old licensed psychiatrist. He’s practiced for more than 50 years, currently out of this clinic on Lake Street in Minneapolis.

(credit: CBS)

Dr. Abuzzahab told us HIPAA prevented him for talking about Arens’ case. But, WCCO discovered the doctor has been surrounded by controversy and complaints for decades.

Once a psychiatry professor at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Abuzzahab took a woman off her medication for schizophrenia as part of a drug study. She committed suicide days later.

In its investigation, the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice would suspend his license for seven months as discipline for “the disregard for the welfare of 46 patients, five of whom died in his care shortly afterward.”

In his latest complaint, the board found the doctor “prescribed excessive quantities of medications for multiple patients.”

That investigation revealed in “seven cases Abuzzahab’s prescribing practices and procedures failed to meet the minimum standards.”

“We fully recognize that, that Mike was an addict but he needed help,” John Arens said.

WCCO found Dr. Abuzzahab prescribed Arens at least eight medications, mostly for psychiatric problems like anxiety and ADD and the doctor made decisions for him that his family considered reckless.

Arens got three DWIs in just two weeks for driving high on medications back in 2013. Dr. Abuzzahab wrote a letter to the state to help him get his license back saying Mike is fine to drive “provided he has passed the eye exam, written and road driving test.”

“Mike must have been driving in a state of intoxication for years. He was a danger to himself and others,” John Arens said.

The Executive Director of the Board of Pharmacy, Cody Wiberg, examined Arens’ prescription records for WCCO. While there is no evidence the drugs the doctor prescribed played a direct role in Arens’ heart disease or death, Wiberg questioned why the psychiatrist would write him a prescription for tramadol, an opioid medication used to treat severe pain.

“Minnesota is really in the grips of an opioid abuse and overdose epidemic,” Wiberg said.

Wiberg acknowledged it is not uncommon for someone recovering from an injury such as Arens’ hip surgery to get addicted because of the drug’s power.

The state is trying to do a better job tracking prescriptions to flag patients who doctor shop to get multiple prescriptions in short periods of time. Under the current prescription monitoring program, every pharmacy must record that information in a database each day. But, on July 1, every physician will also need an account. But they won’t be required to use it. Right now, just 40 percent of doctors do.

In Mike Arens’ case, WCCO found at least five other doctors did write him prescriptions. But because the prescription monitoring program isn’t required — we don’t know if Dr. Abuzzahab knew that or not.

“Ultimately it is going to have to be the pharmacist and the prescribers that are actually taking care of patients that are going to have to use the tools that we make available to them,” Wiberg said.

Arens’ family made a formal complaint to the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice about his care, more than a year ago. They have yet to hear anything back.

The board’s executive director declined WCCO’s repeated requests to be interviewed.

“We felt helpless and we continue to feel helpless because of the lack of accountability. Somebody should be monitoring the drugs that are given out to our loved ones,” Arens said.

Liz says of the 8 million prescriptions filled each year in Minnesota, more than 3 million are for opioids. Under proposed guidelines, doctors would not be allowed to see patients on state health care programs if they keep prescribing too many painkillers.

Liz Collin

Comments (4)
  1. Tom Swanson says:

    This a total ” hatchet job” on a terrific doctor. I didn’t see any mention of ALL the great work he has done treating people w/Tourtettes Syndrome. Never mind myself after seeing doctors from ages 6 to 26 ( just a great childhood) how about the Twin’s player Jim Eisenriech who was cast-off to Kansas City only to become a league All- Star? Tramadol? Gimme ‘ a break! It used to be prescribed like Tylenol. It was just 2 years ago it became a controlled substance. It is NOT for SEVERE pain. It is a mild pain-killer. Get your facts right. I’m sure you won’t even acknowledge this.You are ruining a great man when he didn’t MAKE anyone force them into suicide or whatever …..

    TR Swanson
    No Oaks MN.

  2. I agree completely with Mr. Swanson. Like legislation by victimization, news reporting that jumps on the victimization band wagon and loses all perspective is a disservice to their viewers and paints an incredibly distorted view of one of the best doctors in his field in the Twin Cities if not the country. It is truly sad what happened to Mr. Arens but who was in the best position to get him help? Why the family of course and to unjustly heap blame for his tragic death on Dr. Abuzzahab is so misguided and unfair I do not know where to begin. I wonder if you looked at all the psychiatrists in the state of Minnesota and see how many of their patients commit suicide perhaps you will come to the conclusion that unfortunately suicide is part of treating people with mental illnesses and is not always the result of professional malfeasance. Journalists are supposed to be independent and objective not the public relations arm of people lashing out in misguided victimhood. The self congratulatory follow-up story “celebrating” the “countless lives” supposedly saved by driving a good doctor out of the practice of medicine and depriving his patients of care I predict will have exactly the opposite effect. Will WCCO and its husband and wife news readers take credit for having blood on its hands?

    Patient of Dr. Abuzzahab

  3. Yes, true, Dr A. is 85 years old. And I was on an amazing quantity of drugs from the street when this doctor was willing to treat me. The level of addict he routinely treated was of a level, like mine, that seldom would the person get fully rehabilitated. Often he treated terminal opioid abuse cases. I drew up a literal written contract with him to stop using street drugs completely, while in session with him, and was able to stop in approximately 3 months from that signing of this hand-written contract we did. (opioids)

    I have a new psychiatrist now. But, this is not the man you say he is. All the results of my care under him are positive, and I am on lower doses of medications than I was on, still with his prescription, that are of a lesser quantity than the same quantity of those medications when I started with him. Furthermore, I have discontinued taking 2 of the medications I was prescribed for an acute basis, as the purpose for these medications has become unnecessary.

    Most importantly: it is up to the patient to take their medication responsibly. I only overused my medication before a 30 day prescription period once whilst in the care of this physician, and he was extremely critical, giving me information on a free, state run, medication regulation service with nurses. He enforced that I did not abuse my medication!

    Please know that I understand many patients must have not been happy with this doctor, but I was and am. But this wasn’t some bad guy. This is a revered teacher of many area mental health professionals who took risks, in my opinion. And I wouldn’t have had the guts to treat as many patients as he treated. I’m saddened that his character is trashed in the local news too. I don’t just feel he should be absolved, because he’s older. Simply, the end result is he made me much healthier, not the opposite, and I have new psychiatric care elsewhere now.

    And, I did read about his license suspension. Again: I only know how I was treated and fared, and I did well with him. It is very saddening to hear he had these issues, but I vouch that my care with top notch from him, and that he was no pusher. He certainly did his best to help me. And succeeded.

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