On October 2, 2019, a physician in Virginia received a 40-year prison sentence for illegally prescribing more than half a million opioid pills over 19 months. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia handed down the sentence to Joel Smithers, who reportedly operated a “pill mill” out of Virginia, according to authorities. In addition to prison time, he was given an $86,000 fine and will serve three years of supervised release upon the completion of his prison time, according to court documents.
The sentence is lighter than it could have been. He was facing up to life in prison and a fine of more than $200 million, according to officials at the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ). Click here to view the court’s sentencing document in full.
The Alleged Interstate Pill Mill Operation.
In May 2019, Smithers was convicted by a jury on more than 859 federal drug charges, including one count of possessing with the intent to distribute controlled substances and one count of maintaining a place for the purpose of unlawfully distributing controlled substances. Additionally, he was convicted on hundreds of counts of unlawfully distributing a controlled substance without a legitimate medical purpose or beyond the bounds of medical practice.
When he opened his Virginia practice in 2015, officials said he prescribed controlled substances to “every patient in his practice, resulting in over 500,000 Schedule II controlled substances being distributed.” Authorities say that he allegedly ran an operation that was less a medical practice and more an interstate drug distribution network.
Smithers was able to rake in over $700,000 in cash and credit card payments before the search warrant was executed at his office on March 7, 2017. Click here to read the press release issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Virginia.
To learn about a similar case involving two Florida doctors, click here.
The Problems I See in This Case.
I tell you that I take issue with many of the cases of this sort. I do not know enough about the actual facts of this physician’s case, but I can comment generally based on other similar cases I have had in the past. The government, both state and federal, has come down like a hammer on individual physicians and pharmacists in its over-zealous campaign to crack down on opioids. Many physicians and pharmacists, just trying to do a good job and legitimately treat their patients, are being caught up and persecuted. Chronic pain patients, many of whom are disabled veterans or people injured on the job, are unable to find physicians to treat them anymore or, if they can, any pharmacists willing to fill their prescriptions.
All sorts of under-handed techniques are used to try to make a case against conscientious health professionals who are merely trying to do their jobs. These do include the tactic seen in the case we are reporting on, which I call “bean counting.” The government comes in and, instead of proving how many allegedly illegal prescriptions were written or how many patients the physician gave the prescriptions to, breaks these out into the number of pills. This greatly exaggerates the case and these large numbers alone make it look like the doctor (or pharmacist) is doing something wrong or extremely way out of the norm.
For example, if a patient was receiving a low dose of a pain killer, say 10 mg Oxycodone every 4 to 6 hours, prescribed for four times a day, the ordinary monthly prescription for this medication alone (and such patients rarely receive one type of medication alone) this equates to 120 pills per month. If 10 mg pills are not available and/or the prescription is filled with 5 mg pills, instead, this is 240 pills a month. A years’ worth is 1,440 pills or 2,880 pills for just one patient. If the physician has 50 similar patients, this is 72,000 pills or 144,000 pills a year that the physician is writing and a pharmacy or pharmacies are filling.
This does not seem extreme or unusual to me, at all, and these amounts are on the low side. Yet just as government agencies love to inflate the “street value” or contraband drugs they seize, they love to break down the number of opioids a physician writes so it seems to a layperson to be extraordinarily large. Furthermore, a pain management physician or any other kind of physician cannot survive with just 50 patients a month. It is far more likely for a physician to have a thousand (1,000) or more patients a month. I call this type of numerical exaggeration “bean counting.” But it has put a number of physicians and pharmacists in jail.
Judges should not allow such exaggerated numbers to be introduced into evidence in the absence of further information that places them in context. It is unfairly prejudicial to the defendant to do so.
Contact Health Law Attorneys Experienced with DEA Cases.
The attorneys of The Health Law Firm are experienced in handling Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) cases, board of medicine cases and board of pharmacy cases regarding allegations of over-prescribing and illegal prescribing. If you are currently being investigated or facing other adverse actions by the DEA contact one of our attorneys by calling (407) 331-6620 or (850) 439-1001. You can also visit our website for more information at www.TheHealthLawFirm.com.
Booker, Brakkton. “Doctor Gets 40 Years For Illegally Prescribing More Than Half A Million Opioid Doses.” NPR. (October 2, 2019). Web.
“Virginia doctor could get life in prison today for prescribing 500,000 opioid pills.” RTV6. (October 2, 2019). Web.
Almasy, Steve. “Virginia doctor who illegally prescribed 500,000 opioid pills sentenced to 40 years in prison.” CNN. (October 2, 2019). Web.
About the Author: Carole C. Schriefer is an attorney and registered nurse. She practices with The Health Law Firm, which has a national practice. Its regional office is in the Northern Colorado, area. www.TheHealthLawFirm.com The Health Law Firm, 155 East Boardwalk Drive, Fort Collins, Colorado 80525. Phone: (970) 416-7456. Its main office is in the Orlando, Florida area.
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