The DEA just announced that law enforcement officers have arrested hundreds of people, including 22 doctors and pharmacists, in connection with “Operation Pilluted.” This DEA investigation targeted alleged “pill mills” where physicians were supposedly over-prescribing pain medication including Oxycodone, Hydrocodone and the anti-anxiety drug Xanax.
Although the DEA and Department of Justice have been prosecuting doctors, pharmacists and other individuals associated with pain clinics across the county, “Operation Pilluted” focused primarily on pain clinics in Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. The DEA claims this investigation took 15 months before the arrests were made and the money taken.
Our firm has been involved in several investigations where the DEA targets so-called “pill mills” and criminally prosecutes doctors and other healthcare providers for allegedly prescribing Schedule II narcotic pain medication for no legitimate medical purpose. In these cases, the doctors are charged like street-level drug dealers with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences of ten years up to life in prison.
For most of these doctors, this is their first criminal case. In almost all of these cases, the doctors had not received any warnings, advice or even a hint that their treatment of pain patients was medically inappropriate. No one at these clinics had ever received any notification from the DEA or any medical board that their prescribing practices were outside the normal range.
Instead of simply advising the doctors that some of their patients were abusing and diverting the pain medication, the DEA and cooperating law enforcement agents would hide in the bushes for many months watching the clinics, harassing the patients, and often pretending to be patients themselves so they could lie to the doctors about non-existent injuries and symptoms in order to get pain medication.
We have no idea why the DEA would decide to pursue this kind of an investigation when all it needed to do was simply advise the doctors of patient diversion and abuse when it occurred, and notify the medical board if there was really a problem with the doctor over-prescribing drugs. Of course, if the DEA had handled this and similar cases in that manner, they would not have been able to take the many millions of dollars from the doctors and the clinics. In “Operation Pilluted,” the DEA took $12 million in currency and over $6 million in real property from the doctors and pharmacists it arrested.
Over the past several years, we have developed a winning strategy for successfully resolving these cases for doctors and other health care providers. We are often able to find other physicians who will give us an opinion that the doctor we are representing prescribed pain medication in the ordinary course of his medical practice and for a legitimate medical purpose. We have also used qualified investigators to identify patients who were seen by the clinics with legitimate medical needs for pain medication, contrary to the pretend illnesses and ailments of the undercover agents.
In one recent case, we were able to successfully resolve a pending federal criminal prosecution against a doctor for operating an alleged “pill mill” for a misdemeanor plea (not a drug crime) with no jail time and no agreement to give up his license. We have two other federal criminal cases that are awaiting trial. The doctors that we are representing were all prescribing medication consistent with their independent medical judgment. And that is not a crime.
I have also found it incredibly disingenuous for the DEA to claim that these doctors were putting patients at risk by prescribing this pain medication when the DEA allowed theses same doctors to continue giving out narcotic prescriptions during the many months the DEA was investigating the clinic. If these doctors were truly risking the health of their patients, any concerned law enforcement agent would have stepped in immediately and advised the doctor to change his or her prescribing practices or face a loss of their license or criminal prosecution.
Anyone who is charged in connection with one of these cases will need to seek representation immediately. We have counseled the physicians that we have represented to not surrender their DEA privileges simply because the DEA told the physician that he or she should do so. We also believe that it is important to begin to prepare a defense early in these cases and contact potential medical expert witnesses to assist us in showing that the doctors, pharmacists and other professionals caught up in these sting operations were not acting outside the legitimate practice of medicine and should not be criminally charged.
While there have certainly been some pain clinics that had a history of over-prescribing narcotic medication without a sufficient medical examination, those clinics have mostly been put out of business by this point. It seems that the DEA is now focusing its attention on well-run clinics with qualified doctors because those clinics have generated more money that can be seized by the government when they swarm the clinic and make these arrests.
We will continue our defense of the doctors, pharmacists and other individuals charged in these cases and look forward to having our clients vindicated at trial. We are also contesting the seizure and forfeiture of money and property acquired by these individuals because we believe it is wrongful and not justified in these cases.
Page Pate is an accomplished trial lawyer with over 25 years of experience in criminal defense, civil litigation, and whistleblower representation. Page is listed in The Best Lawyers in America, Top 100 Lawyers by The National Trial Lawyers, and named to the list of Super Lawyers for the past 15 consecutive years. Page is a frequent expert legal analyst for local and national media and has served as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Georgia Law School. Read Page’s reviews on AVVO. Follow Page on Twitter @pagepate and on Linkedin.