January 6th, 2007 07:34 EST
The Case of the Drug-Dealing Doctor
“A doctor who illegally prescribes narcotics is no different than a drug dealer selling from a street corner.”
A good point, made last month by Mark Trouville, DEA’s top agent in Miami.
He was referring specifically to a doctor in Panama City, Florida, who was indicted on December 13 along with his office manager on a laundry list of fraud and drug charges—a whopping 124 counts in all.
Among the alleged crimes:
- Prescribing controlled substances—powerful narcotics like morphine, Percocet, and OxyContin—to drug addicts and abusers who were patients that just wanted to support their drug habits;
- Faking health care claims for patients who were never seen;
- And most grievous of all: killing two people who overdosed on the illegally prescribed drugs.
On some days, the doctor doled out as many as a thousand pills. And, according to the charges, he knew full well he was giving them to addicts who were misusing them.
The multi-agency investigation. In this case, many hands made effective work. The investigation was the product of the North Florida Health Care Fraud Task Force, created in 2001 by FBI Special Agent Victoria Harker of our four-person office in Fort Walton Beach. The task force—which handles cases across the Florida panhandle, stretching from Panama City to Pensacola—includes representatives from nearly a dozen law enforcement, criminal justice, regulatory, and healthcare agencies.
“The FBI has a small office here, and when it comes to investigating these complex health care frauds, we can’t do it alone,” said Harker. “With a bunch of agencies chipping in, it gives us a strong lineup in terms of both resources and jurisdictional reach. We can complete one of these investigations a lot more quickly.”
And they have, scoring two major successes already. Convicted on similar charges were doctors Freddy Williams and Thomas Merrill.
“Everyone on the task force is an equal player and essentially a case agent, and I think that’s why we’re so successful,” Harker said. “It’s really a tight-knit team.” And a perfect antidote to health care crime in an age of tight budgets.
So how did the task force go about making the case? With a lot of painstaking work. Specifically, the team members:
- Got the name of the doctor from pharmacists suspicious about the doctor’s many prescriptions for narcotics;
- After some initial legwork, obtained a search warrant, seized key records, then gleaned relevant bits of data that were handed off to experts;
- Collected some 25,000 original prescriptions written by the doctor and created a database of them all;
- Put together a patient list that was analyzed and sent to experts for follow up;
- Conducted hundreds of interviews and identified the best witnesses; and
- Confirmed with a medical examiner that two patients died directly because of overdoses of narcotics prescribed by the doctor.
“It’s time-consuming work, but worth every minute,” explained Harker. “How would you feel if a friend or family member died from an overdose of drugs that should have never been available in the first place? Knowing that we can save lives keeps us going.”