A McLean doctor who was a pioneer in the use of potent prescription painkillers was indicted by a federal grand jury this morning on charges that he was the leader of a broad conspiracy to illegally distribute narcotics across the nation and that he played a hand in the death of at least three patients.
McLean Doctor Facing Drug Trafficking ChargesBy Josh White Washington Post Staff Writer
In a 49-count indictment, the grand jury charged William E. Hurwitz, 57, with conspiring to traffic drugs, drug trafficking resulting in death and serious injury, engaging in a criminal enterprise and health care fraud. Should Hurwitz be convicted of the most serious charges, he faces life in prison.
The indictment grew out of a wide-ranging federal investigation into doctors, pharmacists and patients who allegedly have been selling highly potent and addictive painkillers on a furtive and lucrative black market. More than 40 people already have been convicted as part of the probe.
The illegal sales of OxyContin and drugs such as methadone and dilaudid fueled what authorities have called an epidemic of abuse that wiped out some small towns in Appalachia.
During the past few years, the abuse and illegal sales have crept into suburban and urban areas along the East Coast, bringing associated crimes such as theft, fraud and homicide to the Washington region and other major metropolitan cities.
OxyContin is a prescription pill that allows its main ingredient, oxycodone, to be released slowly over time to patients who need extremely strong levels of pain relief. It is hailed as a miracle drug by cancer patients and others with intractable pain, but it is decried by local, state and federal authorities for its role in rampant abuse and hundreds of overdose deaths.
The indictment signals an aggressive push by federal prosecutors to hold licensed doctors accountable for what happens to the drugs they prescribe and for the actions of their patients. Hurwitz is one of a few doctors across the country who have been indicted for overprescribing drugs, and he is among the first to be charged with orchestrating a widespread conspiracy.
A doctor in Florida was found guilty of manslaughter and drug charges stemming from his prescribing habits at a local clinic there, and a doctor is currently on trial in federal court in Roanoke for his prescribing methods. But those cases have focused on local distribution; Hurwitz's indictment alleges a carefully organized conspiracy to distribute the drugs in several states.
According to today's indictment, Hurwitz's high-profile Northern Virginia pain practice was at the heart of a conspiracy to distribute the drugs for profit. The grand jury alleges that Hurwitz prescribed "countless prescriptions for excessive doses" of controlled drugs with the goal of getting his patients hooked, getting them to pay him a monthly maintenance fee, and encouraging their illegal sales.
Federal prosecutors allege that Hurwitz wanted "to make as much money as possible by distributing and dispensing controlled substances . . . to patients, other drug users, and conspirators." They also allege that Hurwitz aimed to facilitate the re-sale of the drugs on the black market and to "satisfy the demand for the illegal distribution, sale and consumption of controlled substances" throughout Northern Virginia, southwest Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.
The most serious charges -- that Hurwitz's drug trafficking conspiracy caused fatal overdoses -- focuses on the deaths of Rennie Buras Sr., of Louisiana, who died on Oct. 9, 1999, and Linda Lalmond, who died in Fairfax County on June 1, 2000. Both had been receiving treatment from Hurwitz and allegedly died as a result.
The indictment also mentions the death of Mary Nye, who died in Prince William County on Nov. 4, 2002. Hurwitz is charged with causing Nye serious bodily injury for prescribing her massive amounts of OxyContin and methadone. Nye received thousands of pills from Hurwitz, and a regional drug task force believes that Nye ultimately was selling her drugs so she could afford her own addiction.
The grand jury also alleges that Hurwitz accepted "secret cash payments" from conspirators to "ignore" their illegal activities and that he seriously injured an unnamed patient's unborn baby by prescribing her large amounts of OxyContin while she was late in her third trimester. The baby was born with a drug addiction, the indictment says.
U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty has scheduled a news conference for this afternoon at the U.S. District Court in Alexandria to announce the indictment. Authorities said Hurwitz was arrested early this morning.
Hurwitz has long maintained that he is an honest doctor who prescribed painkillers to patients who desperately needed them and had nowhere else to turn. Hurwitz believes that his painkilling strategies save people's lives and that a few "misbehaving" patients have earned him the wrath of an overaggressive federal investigation.
Hurwitz is not a newcomer to criticism and oversight, as he has previously lost his medical licenses for allegedly overprescribing painkillers and was most recently placed on probation in Virginia in May. He has appeared on the show "60 Minutes" to talk about his practice and runs an Internet Web site advocating his treatment.
His marketing practices, authorities say, allowed him to keep patients in all parts of the country and Canada. The indictment alleges that Hurwitz prescribed medications to "patients and conspirators" in as many as 39 states, issuing the prescriptions with little or no physical examination and sometimes over the phone, fax or on the Internet. He also allegedly issued prescriptions from his home in McLean.
Prosecutors allege that Hurwitz made large profits by charging an initiation fee of $1,000 for each patient and then charged $250 each month as a "maintenance fee" for office visits and prescriptions. They wrote in the indictment that Hurwitz had about 470 patients in his clinic during the past five years, accounting for millions of dollars in profit. Authorities have asked the court to seize more than $2 million in Hurwitz's assets.
Hurwitz shut his offices last year because he said he feared an indictment and wanted to give his patients time to find new doctors.
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