Prosecutors Target “Drug Dealers in Lab Coats”

The first few weeks of the new year have seen a high number of healthcare professionals who have pleaded guilty, were convicted or sentenced on charges relating to the illegal prescribing of narcotics, including one who prosecutors described as “the latest drug dealer in a lab coat.”

The cases are tied to an ongoing crackdown by law enforcement agencies as a result of the opioid epidemic that has accounted for tens of thousands of deaths. These cases only serve to further exemplify the Department of Justice’s commitment to going after medical professionals who violate their Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.

On Feb. 4, four Detroit-area physicians were found guilty for their roles in a scheme to administer unnecessary back injections to patients in exchange for prescriptions of more than 6.6 million doses of medically unnecessary opioids. Patients were required to get the injections in order to get the prescriptions, according to the allegations. Some of the patients suffered adverse effects from the unnecessary injections. Evidence presented at their trial showed that the four defendants were among some of the top prescribers of oxycodone 30mg in Michigan, a dosage suitable only for terminally ill cancer patients. Seventeen other defendants, including eight other doctors, previously pleaded guilty in connection with the investigation.

On Feb. 3, a South Carolina physician pleaded guilty to distributing oxycodone without a legitimate medical purpose in the usual course of professional medical practice and beyond the bounds of medical practice. Dr. William Earley, who worked at a clinic that provided treatment of chronic pain through opioids, admitted there were some red flags that patients were not being properly evaluated and that records were poorly kept, yet he continued to prescribe painkillers, according to the allegations. In a news release, one U.S. Attorney called Earley “the latest drug dealer in a lab coat to plead guilty.” The doctor faces up to 10 years in prison.

Also on Feb. 3, a federal court in North Carolina entered a consent judgment and permanent injunction requiring a North Carolina pharmacy, Farmville Discount Drug Inc., and its owner and pharmacist-in-charge, Robert L. Crocker, to pay $600,000 in civil penalties and to permanently cease dispensing opioids or other controlled substances. Crocker also must surrender his license to practice pharmacy and Farmville must permanently surrender its DEA registration.

It was alleged that for years Crocker ignored multiple red flags by filling prescriptions for dangerous and highly abused prescription drug cocktails for long-distance patients, filled hundreds of opioid prescriptions from multiple members of the same family, filled prescriptions from someone known to have been cut off from other pharmacies, and filled controlled substance prescriptions from patients who doctor- and pharmacy-hopped.

On January 31, a family medicine physician in Alabama pleaded guilty to drug distribution charges resulting from the prescription of opioid drugs from a medical clinic she operated. Celia Lloyd-Turney’s guilty plea came as the jury was deliberating, but had not yet reached a verdict. Evidence showed that between 2015 and 2017, Lloyd-Turney wrote multiple prescriptions for controlled substances to purported patients who were actively abusing other drugs, suffering from addiction, and selling the pills.  

Also on Jan. 31, a West Virginia physician was sentenced to five years of probation, including six months of home confinement, after pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute controlled substances outside the bounds of professional medical practice. Dr. Parth Bharill admitted to working with a treatment center to write illegitimate prescriptions for suboxone, according to a news release. In addition to probation, Bharill was ordered to pay a $50,000 fine, as well as $23,076.95 in restitution. The judge also imposed an order of forfeiture of $12,312.

On Jan. 28, a Kentucky pharmacist pleaded guilty to three counts of illegal distribution of controlled substances. It was alleged that Kenton L. Shearer filled, or allowed his employees to fill, various prescriptions for controlled substances to patients he knew had doctor-shopped to obtain them. The various incidents took place between 2011 and 2015. Shearer faces up to 15 months in prison and agreed to forfeit a $200,000 monetary judgment to the United States.

On Jan. 21, a Pennsylvania doctor pleaded guilty to five counts of unlawfully distributing oxycodone to his patients. Dr. Timothy F. Shawl admitted that he wrote prescriptions, usually for oxycodone, for certain patients without seeing, treating or examining them. In one case, a patient who he had not conducted a physical examination on in at least five years, died just three days after Shawl last prescribed oxycodone for her. The cause of death was drug intoxication, according to a news release.

And, on Jan. 8, a former Virginia physician pleaded guilty to conspiring to unlawfully sell prescription drugs to consumers without valid prescriptions. At the time the sales occurred, Lawrence B. Ryan, was a physician. It was alleged he conspired with an internet pharmacy organization to sell prescription drugs without valid prescriptions to consumers around the U.S. Ryan was sent drug orders for approval as a participating physician. However, Ryan never had contact with the patients, nor did he perform exams or check on the accuracy of information provided by the patients, according to the allegations. During the time he worked with the pharmacy, Ryan approved more than 158,000 illegal drug orders. He faces up to five years in prison.

The ever-increasing number of guilty pleas and convictions of healthcare professionals found to have illegally prescribed controlled substances should send a loud and clear message that such conduct will not be tolerated. Not only do prescribers face jail time and fines, but such conduct can essentially end their medical careers forever. Medical licenses are lost, DEA licenses are revoked, lives are ruined. Healthcare professionals who prescribe controlled substances that are medically unnecessary are seen by law enforcement as equivalent to street drug dealers.

In some instances, physicians enter into agreements with unscrupulous treatment centers and pharmacies and, as seen in some of the cases above, ignore the warning signs that what they are doing is illegal.

If you or your practice is approached to enter into such arrangements, it’s critical that you have legal counsel review any agreement. The Health Law Offices of Anthony C. Vitale can help you protect your interests and defend your practice. We have a long track record of assisting clients in criminal matters. If you have any questions contact us at 305-358-4500 or email us at info@vitalehealthlaw.com.

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The Health Law Offices of Anthony C. Vitale

The Health Law Offices of Anthony C. Vitale

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