Cerebral: U.S. Dept. of Justice Issues Subpoena to Online Mental Health Startup, Alleging Misuse of Controlled Substances

May 12, 2022

Telehealth startups that offer Americans quick and easy access to mental health drugs have been on the rise in recent years, but now at least one may soon face legal trouble over allegations it pressured nurses into prescribing drugs.

Cerebral, an emerging telehealth startup that has suffered from its share of controversy in recent months, was subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) on May 4, Insider reports, over allegations the company was misusing prescription drugs like Xanax and Adderall.

The San Francisco-based company has been under fire in recent months over potentially misleading and harmful ads on social media platforms like TikTok - which is primarily used by children and teenagers - and over a report from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) alleging it was pressuring nurses to prescribe medication for conditions like ADHD.

It also has notable backers, like Simone Biles, one of the most successful female gymnasts of all time.

On the same day as the subpoena, the company announced it would no longer offer prescription drugs for new telehealth patients.

The Department of Justice has subpoenaed the telehealth provides Cerebral over allegations that it misused drugs like Xanax and Adderall.

“Cerebral intends to fully cooperate with the investigation, which we already have conveyed to the U.S. Attorney's Office,” the company told DailyMail.com in an emailed statement.

It also noted that: “at this time, no regulatory or law enforcement authority has accused Cerebral of violating any law.”

The DoJ did not immediately reply to a DailyMail.com request for comment.

The company is a part of a budding, yet controversial, new industry in medicine that developed in recent years before rocketing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Telehealth companies that provide patients with quick consultations, and even potentially offer prescriptions written by certified medical professionals, have been appearing across the U.S.

Cerebral's focus is on mental health, but other companies also cover things as far-reaching as male-pattern baldness to neurological treatment. Some online clinics were even consulting Covid patients last year, leading to an uptick of ivermectin prescriptions.

In America, where many young people are uninsured or under-insured and access to a therapist and other psychological help may be hard to find due to long waitlists, these companies became popular.

The company has since stopped offering some drugs to new patients. Those who sign up for its services currently are met with a notice that Adderall and Ritalin - two popular ADHD drugs - are no longer available.

The company has grown in recent months as well.

In September, CEO and founder Kyle Robertson announced the Simone Biles, Olympic gymnast who notably struggled with mental health issues during last year's Tokyo games, had signed on as the company's Chief Impact Officer.

Biles has also posted multiple advertisements for the company to her social media accounts, and even appeared on NBC News Now in October to promote the brand.

It is also an expanding company, currently have job listings for “associate telemedicine therapist” and “licensed telemedicine therapist” in nearly every single U.S. state.

During Covid, where many brick-and-mortar doctors and therapists office were closed due to pandemic-related restrictions, use of these telehealth services hit another gear.

“The safe medical care of our patients is our highest priority. Cerebral's services have been especially critical during the last two years of the simultaneous COVID-19 pandemic—which rendered in-person care much more difficult to obtain—and the exploding mental health crisis and associated provider shortage that the United States has faced,” the company told DailyMail.com.

On Cerebral's website, after completing an initial survey which asks questions like “how often do you have difficulty waiting your turn in situations when turn taking is required?” and “how difficult has this made it for you to do your work, take care of things at home, or get along with other people?” a patient is offered weekly plans.

The cheapest plan, and the first offered after DailyMail.com completed the initial assessment, costs $20 a week, or around $86 a month if used for an entire year.

The most expensive of three plans charges $76 per week, or over $300 a month if used for an entire year.

As of Monday, those who complete the assessment are met with a message that says: 'Please note that if you're diagnosed with ADHD and medication is recommended as part of your treatment, we will only prescribe non-stimulants, such as Wellbutrin and Stattera. Our prescribers will not prescribe stimulants, such as Adderall or Ritalin, at this time.'

These types companies have been criticized by some health experts for alleged low standards for prescribing drugs, predatory advertising and low quality of care, though.

Cerebral in particular has been under fire. It had ads pulled by both TikTok and Instagram - which is owned by Meta - that tied ADHD to obesity. There is no scientific link between the conditions.

The company tells DailyMail.com that it “is as dedicated significant time, energy, and resources to ensuring that its policies and procedures regarding the prescription of controlled substances and other medications both are medically appropriate and comply with all applicable state and federal law.”

A report from WSJ in March found that Cerebral and one of its competitors, Done -which has not been immune to criticism either - found that nurses working for the companies felt pressured to prescribe drugs like Adderall.

Because consultations are often shorten and quick - one of the main features of the way the company operates - and follow up appointments are no guarantee, nurses are often prescribing the abusable drugs to people they have not had much time to evaluate.

Nurses reported feeling pressured to diagnose patients with ADHD in particular.

“Cerebral has dedicated significant time, energy, and resources to ensuring that its policies and procedures regarding the prescription of controlled substances and other medications both are medically appropriate and comply with all applicable state and federal law,” the company told DailyMail.com.

“As a responsible company, Cerebral is continuously improving its systems and practices. The foundation of this company is built on evidence-based, ethical, and compliant practices so that our patients can receive the highest quality of care and achieve the best clinical outcomes.”

Source: Mansur Shaneen, “Simone Biles-backed online mental-health clinic Cerebral faces DoJ subpoena over potential misuse of controlled drugs like Xanax and Adderall by 'pressuring' nurses to prescribe drugs,” Daily Mail, May 9, 2022, URL: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-10798657/Trendy-online-mental-health-clinic-Cerebral-faces-DoJ-subpoena.html


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