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A physicians’ advocacy group is blasting the Bush administration for its pledge to prosecute physicians even if their patients are responsible for the abuse of pain medications they’ve been prescribed.
“Physicians are being threatened, impoverished, delicensed and imprisoned for prescribing in good faith with the intention of relieving pain,” said Kathryn Serkes, a spokeswoman for the Tucson, Arizona-based American Association of Physicians and Surgeons.
In a Monday press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., AAPS criticized the Justice Department and the Bush administration for what it says is the prosecution of physicians for misdeeds of patients.
One such physician, AAPS says, is William Hurwitz M.D. of McLean, Va., a pain-management specialist who had his license to practice medicine suspended in May 1996 by the state Board of Medicine after it found he allegedly had prescribed excessive doses of opioid analgesics in the treatment of 30 patients.
His license was restored in August 1997, but earlier this year he was arrested on federal drug charges. Federal prosecutors allege he distributed drugs that wound up on the black market.
Hurwitz, 57, is a strong believer in the use of high-power analgesics to treat intractable pain in patients, but he and his lawyers deny he was distributing them illegally.
In a court appearance Tuesday, however, Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Lytle compared Hurwitz to a “crack dealer,” saying his medical credentials should not shield him from scrutiny.
“This a case of a defendant who wears a white coat and with the power of a pen” distributes drugs, Lytle said. “This is not a case about malpractice or whether a doctor exercised bad judgment.”
Hurwitz has been in jail since his arrest; Lytle argued for keeping him there without bond until his trial, which could yield a life sentence if he’s convicted.
Hurwitz is one of the first doctors ensnared by a Justice Department crackdown on prescription drug abuse. Prosecutors and authorities have recently begun to focus more on physicians, the Washington Post reported.
But his lawyers, as well as AAPS and other supporters, say Hurwitz is a victim of his patients’ abuse of the drugs he’s prescribed – something that is beyond his control.
Federal prosecutors say they have Hurwitz on tape discussing a co-conspirator’s drug dealing in Tennessee before issuing him more prescriptions. Also, prosecutors allege Hurwitz has hid almost $2 million of his reported earnings for the past five years.
James Hundley, Hurwitz’s attorney, said his client has followed accepted medical practice when prescribing the analgesics to his patients – procedures also accepted by the Virginia Board of Medicine, Hurwitz contends.
“He is a licensed doctor. The illegality happened down the road from him. If patients choose to misbehave, he can’t control that,” Hundley said.
Serkes said the government, as well as trial lawyers, are teaming up to ruin the medical profession.
“Trial attorneys think doctors should pay dearly for abuse of medication by patients after they leave the doctors’ offices. But why [are] Bush administration government [officials] jailing doctors for the misdeeds of their patients?” she said.
Serkes added doctors are being brought up on murder charges when patients inject drugs meant to be taken orally, mix them with illegal street drugs such as heroin, then overdose.
“This is a national disgrace – doctors throughout the country are being targeted by egregious law enforcement for helping patients manage crippling pain with controlled, legal drugs,” she said.