Tag: Dr. Sylvia Hofstetter

DEA investigations: How much is too much?

Why such lengthy criminal investigations?

In an earlier post I asked whether the number of deaths attributed to Dr. Sylvia Hofstetter’s clinic by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) could have been reduced had the undercover investigation been terminated sooner, after two years instead of four. In other words, what did two more years of undercover work by the DEA add to Dr. Hofstetter’s case?

More likely than not, the additional two years added nothing of value. By the DEA’s own account, illicit drug use and deaths continued, unabated by the DEA, while the DEA continued its lengthy investigation, and for what purpose? The additional evidence accumulated against Dr. Hofstetter was of questionable value. If the allegations are true, Dr. Hofstetter’s case would have been overwhelming to defend after the first year. As I write this, I can think of two physicians convicted of only one count of drug diversion that were sentenced to 5 years each, and one physician convicted of only six counts of drug diversion that was sentenced to 15 years. And all it takes is one patient death to impose a mandatory 20-year sentence. So why spend four years investigating Dr. Hofstetter, when one year, or even six months, will suffice?

Some might argue that the DEA is preoccupied with large undercover investigations at the expense of preventing harm to others. Think about it. If there were an active shooter in a shopping mall, police would not secretly stand by, accumulating more evidence, allowing more deaths to occur, before intervening to save lives. If the DEA is right about the harm inflicted by drug diversion, and by Dr. Hofstetter, why then does the DEA stand by and allow the harm to continue? What interests are served?

Why wait for a crime or injury to occur in the first place?

And here’s the larger question – why not shut down questionable prescribing practices early-on, when the suspect prescribing practices are first brought to the DEA’s attention, before anyone is harmed? There is, after all, no need to wait for even one criminal act to occur. Criminality is not necessary before the DEA may take action. The DEA may restrict, suspend, or revoke the prescribing physician’s DEA Registration by exercising the DEA’s administrative powers over DEA Registrants, much like a state licensing Board will pursue a physician, pharmacist, or nurse for practicing below the standard of care under state law.

It doesn’t take much to stop illegal prescribing

As I write this, I can think of a doctor and a nurse that engaged is almost identical misconduct while prescribing controlled drugs. Each wrote prescriptions to another, knowing the other would fill the prescriptions and return the controlled drugs to the doctor or nurse, for the doctor or nurse’s personal use. In each case, the standard of care was violated, and a fraudulent medical record was created, a crime. If insurance paid for the controlled drugs, then insurance fraud occurred too, also a crime.

Both the doctor and the nurse were easily caught, and easily stopped. Both were reported by their co-workers. The doctor was reported to the Oregon Medical Board (OMB). He’s in treatment, on probation, and his license is restricted, but he’s still practicing medicine. The nurse, unfortunately, was reported to the police first, and then to the Oregon State Board of Nursing. She too obtained treatment, but the police report led to a criminal indictment and she eventually entered a plea agreement on two counts. The sentencing court, wishing to send a message, insisted on criminal convictions over misdemeanors. Because the nurse was convicted of two felonies, she surrendered her RN and NP licenses to the Oregon State Board of Nursing. And because the nurse was convicted of two drug felonies, she was further “excluded” by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) from participation in any and all healthcare programs receiving federal dollars for five years!

As an aside, the doctor and the nurse were involved in similar misconduct, but were treated in a disparate fashion, because law enforcement became involved in the nurse’s case, but not the doctor’s case. The doctor is still practicing, albeit with a restricted license while on probation and receiving treatment. The nurse, however, is not practicing, because she had the misfortune of being reported to the police first, and then the Oregon State Board of Nursing. She lost her licensure and was excluded by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) from working in any setting that received federal funding, which is most clinical settings. Such disparate treatment is worrisome, but the point I want to make is that in both cases, the prescribing misconduct was stopped early on, before it became a larger societal problem.

Early intervention may be best for all involved

Which brings me back to where I started. Imagine how much pain and suffering, not to mention loss of life, might have been spared had the DEA exercised is administrative powers, and stepped in four years earlier, at the first sign of trouble, to restrict, suspend, or revoke Dr. Sylvia Hofstetter’s DEA Registration, and then perhaps pursue criminal sanctions too.

Could some deaths been prevented in Dr. Sylvia Hofstetter’s case?

The lengthy DEA investigation of doctor Sylvia Hofstetter

I earlier commented on the case involving doctor Sylvia Hofstetter and, as I explained then, I have no personal knowledge of Dr. Hofstetter or her case, having only read about Dr. Hofstsetter in the media. Nonetheless, any lawyer having any experience defending doctors against drug diversion charges will know that the government’s investigations can be quite thorough, and this is certainly true of the investigation into Dr. Sylvia Hofstetter. By one account, it was described as a “lengthy multi-year investigation” into Dr. Hofstetter’s move from Florida to Knoxville, Tennessee. It was further reported that “there were at least seven overdose deaths” due to controlled drugs prescribed by Dr. Hofstetter’s clinics, and that number does not include “dozens” of other potential deaths, as follows:

“In four years, the FBI said prescriptions for more than 12 million pills were written by Hofstetter’s clinics * * * [and] there were at least seven overdose deaths due entirely to opioid drugs that were prescribed by Hofstetter’s clinics. [The investigator] said seven deaths was a solid estimate because that number does not include dozens of other overdose deaths where other drugs may have been in the victims’ systems.”

See http://www.wbir.com/story/news/crime/2015/03/13/overdose-deaths–organized-crime-linked-to-pill-mill-operation/70285100/

The unasked questions

How many deaths could have been prevented had the government concluded its investigation of doctor Sylvia Hofstetter in two years instead of four? It does not appear that the government’s case against Dr. Hofstetter would have been compromised in any way that would have affected the government’s ability to pursue Dr. Hofstetter on criminal grounds after a two-year investigation. Alternatively, how many deaths would have been prevented had the DEA acted quickly after Dr. Hofstetter’s practice standards became suspect, by administratively suspending and then revoking Dr. Hofstetter’s DEA Registration, which would have ended her ability to prescribe controlled drugs all together?

A matter of public policy

These questions are public policy questions only, exploring the tip of the iceberg of social values, priorities, and the allocation of public resources. These questions are not intended to suggest a legal defense.

What happened to the doctor “let go” by Dr. Sylvia Hofstetter?

The story of doctor Sylvia Hofstetter, in what has been characterized as “the largest drug network unearthed so far in East Tennessee,” is unfolding publicly this year, although the investigation certainly traces back several years. I have no personal knowledge of this case, or of Dr. Sylvia Hofstetter, having only read about Dr. Hofstsetter’s case in the media. As I understand it from news reports, Dr. Hofstetter was indicted earlier this year and is facing trial next year for prescription drug charges arising out of a large “pill mill operation” in Knowxville and Lenoir City. The facts as alleged certainly look bad for doctor Sylvia Hofstetter and her colleagues, but they always do, even in the cases that turn out better in the end.

At least one doctor was viewed favorably

What caught my eye was the testimony of an FBI Special Agent, who reportedly testified that Dr. Sylvia Hofstetter let one doctor “go” because that doctor spent more time with patients and wouldn’t always write a prescription for a narcotic. One implication from the Special Agent’s testimony is that this doctor was exercising clinical judgment, which suggests he was practicing medicine, and not intentionally dealing (i.e., diverting) drugs. Even if you assume the factual allegations are true with respect to Dr. Hofstetter and the others, this doctor is situated differently, even in the eyes of the FBI Special Agent. The doctor is not identified by name and I wonder what happened to him. Most often, every physician in the clinic is indicted, but was this doctor spared from indictment?

A “legitimate medical purpose,” or intentionally dealing drugs?

If this doctor was indicted, the issue for him will likely be whether he was practicing medicine or intentionally dealing drugs, and it is further likely his case will become entangled in the quarrel between what constitutes “prescribing without a legitimate medical purpose” (in my opinion, this agency rule is often misused by the DEA), and what constitutes the “knowing or intentional distribution of a controlled substance outside the course of professional practice,” which is the statutory crime legislated by Congress in the Controlled Substances Act, a quarrel I have discussed elsewhere on this website, and will not repeat again here today.