A recent spate of guilty pleas from doctors caught up in prescription drug crimes is a sign that the opioid crisis is far from over, despite hints of progress in the nationwide battle against addiction.
The Department of Justice announced four guilty pleas since the new year started in cases where physicians were accused of distributing opioids illegally. The DOJ has also announced the sentencing of two other doctors on similar charges.
The announcements reflect a growing surge in prosecutions of doctors for illegal opioid distribution, which rose from two cases by the DOJ’s Health Care Fraud Unit in 2016 to 56 in 2019, according to figures provided by the DOJ.
Federal prosecutors have highlighted the importance of choking off the source of illegal prescriptions amid a deadly opioid crisis that caused around 48,000 deaths in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cases Bear Fruit
The recent surge in prosecutions is no surprise to Michael Elliott, a former federal prosecutor who now defends health-care providers in criminal and civil cases.
“You had the whole opioid crisis heating up before the last election, especially with the surge in deaths in Appalachia and other rural areas,” he said. “And then Trump came in and said he was going to focus on the issue and rearrange priorities inside the DOJ. And now a couple of years later you’re beginning to see this work bearing fruit.”
Two doctors pleaded guilty in separate so-called “pill mill” cases Jan. 21 in which thousands of doses of opioids were illegally distributed, the DOJ said. A third doctor pleaded guilty the same day to fraudulently obtaining opioids for her personal use, the agency said.
Those announcements came less than two weeks after two other doctors were sentenced in separate cases to prison terms for illegally prescribing opioids. Another doctor pleaded guilty to writing false prescriptions for controlled substances to customers of an internet pharmacy.
Docs Not ‘Above the Law’
“Even a medical degree does not put one above the law,” Robert Brewer, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California, said in a Jan. 21 statement announcing one of the guilty pleas.
Federal prosecutors “will continue to zealously pursue doctors who write opioid or other prescriptions that are plainly outside their professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose,” he said.
Medical providers can find themselves stuck in the middle between aggressive prosecutors and patients in need of pain treatment, said Elliott, who is based in Dallas.
“There’s a large population of people out there with chronic pain, and doctors aren’t generally inclined to be their policemen,” Elliott said. “They see their role as helping these people to the best of their ability. But they can’t control if their patients go out and sell the drugs for another habit or shop around to other doctors.”
Federal prosecutors appear unfazed by that distinction.
“The Department of Justice is committed to protecting consumers from unscrupulous medical professionals who assist others to unlawfully sell potentially harmful and addictive drugs to American consumers,” Jody Hunt, an assistant attorney general in the DOJ’s Criminal Division, said in reference to a Jan. 8 guilty plea in a case in Virginia.