In the past year-and-a-half, 15 Western Washington doctors, nurses and pharmacists have been prosecuted for illegal distribution and abuse of prescription drugs. That’s an unprecedented number. And it’s a sign federal prosecutors in the Northwest are getting more aggressive about cracking down on drug addicted medical professionals. Doctor Keith – he doesn’t want his last name used – was once a board certified anesthesiologist. Today he’s a convicted felon, stripped of his license to practice medicine. His crime: using deception, subterfuge and misrepresentation to feed his addiction to powerful painkillers like Vicadin, Percocet and Demerol.
Doctor Keith says he realized he was in big trouble when DEA agents started visiting his friends and colleagues and asking questions. Doctor Keith: “I just knew the game was over and I just thought, you know what, I did these things and I’m going to end up going to prison for them and this is where my addiction has taken me.”
Doctor Keith didn’t go to prison. Instead he cooperated with prosecutors, pled guilty and got a suspended sentence. Now he’s required to attend a 12-step program and submit to regular drug tests. But he says his life is in ruins. Doctor Keith: “I’ve lost my house, I’ve lost my bank account, my pension plan, I lost my business, I lost my license, I lost my wife.”
The Washington Physicians Health Program estimates — like the general population — ten to fifteen percent of doctors will battle addiction sometime in their career. Most to alcohol. But increasingly the drugs of choice are ones doctors can easily get their hands on: hydrocodone and oxycodone — powerful painkillers that can give the user a euphoric high.
Doctor Keith says at first he took the drugs for back pain. But soon they became a magic pill that helped him function as a busy doctor and a father. Doctor Keith: “I took ‘em when I would have my son on a weekend because I needed more energy and I wanted to be in a better mood when he was around. I wanted to be active and I wanted to be pleasant. And that sounds like well that’s not a problem to do that. Well that does become a problem.”
Doctor Keith’s addiction got him in trouble with medical license boards in Maryland, Arizona, and Washington. But it wasn’t until the feds stepped in earlier this year that the consequences got really serious. Ron Friedman is an assistant U.S. Attorney who has prosecuted several Washington physicians in recent months – including Doctor Keith. Ron Friedman: “Doctors when they go to medical school and graduate and become a different breed. And an extremely valuable breed in our society. But unfortunately sometimes they get hooked on the same drugs and have the same sort of problems that the general population has.”
Friedman says he was turned on to the problem of doctors misbehaving when he prosecuted a prolific pharmacy burglary ring a couple of years ago. He explains addicted physicians – just like any other addicts – will do just about anything to get their next fix. Ron Friedman: “Writing prescriptions in the names of their patients, giving them to their patients and having the patients bring back the drugs to them, or splitting the drugs with the patient. Doctors writing prescriptions for each other. They write prescriptions in a phony name and they go to the pharmacy and present themselves as this person to pick up the drugs themselves.”
And the list of ruses goes on. Friedman says the rise in prescription drug abuse among physicians mirrors what’s happening in society in general: while the use of meth, cocaine and heroin is down, prescription drug use is skyrocketing. That poses an obvious threat to patient safety. Friedman adds that doctors shouldn’t get diplomatic immunity just because they’re well-respected professionals. Ron Friedman: “The man who steals from a pharmacy because he’s addicted and that’s the only way he knows how to get the drugs shouldn’t be judged that differently than a physician who’s addicted and doesn’t have to break into a pharmacy but can order the drugs into his practice and then divert the drugs himself.”
This focus is relatively new. Traditionally, addicted doctors have been funneled into special drug treatment programs for physicians. That still happens. But now when there’s evidence of law breaking – doctors increasingly face prosecution. Dr. Mick Oreskovich runs the Washington Physicians Health Program – which helps addicted doctors. As an addiction specialist, he believes in treatment but sees a value in the prosecutions. Dr. Mick Oreskovich: “These may be the consequences that get them sober and keep them sober for the rest of their lives and save their lives.” Oreskovich says the word is out in the medical community that the stakes are now higher for drug addicted doctors. A federal felony conviction makes it difficult to ever practice medicine again. “You know this stays on one’s record in perpetuity and every time they fill out an application for malpractice insurance or to get hospital privileges or to perform surgery or to get a DEA license that is there forever and haunts them forever.” Oreskovich says.
As for Doctor Keith, he hopes that someday he will be able to practice again. Doctor Keith: “There are other things that are higher priority for me now. But of course, I mean I went to medical school and residency and fellowship and trained and practiced and that’s who I am so I would be surprised to hear any other answer from a physician to be honest with you.”
For now, Doctor Keith is focusing on staying clean and sober and following the terms of his probation. If he slips up, he knows there’s a federal prison cell waiting for him.