More doctors facing charges over drug abuse
Sep 14, 2011, 7:16 a.m.
By Terry Baynes
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Michael Jackson's doctor, accused of killing the pop star with a powerful anesthetic, has joined a small but growing number of doctors facing criminal charges due to a U.S. government clampdown on the over-prescription of addictive drugs.
Fatal overdoses from prescription painkillers more than tripled to 13,800 in the United States in 1999 through 2006, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Consequently, more doctors are finding themselves in the sights of prosecutors as states like Florida and Georgia confront the growth in abuse of prescription drugs. The prosecution of doctors is seen as more effective than bringing cases against their patients.
There were just over two dozen reported criminal cases against doctors for malpractice in the two decades from 1981 to 2001, according to Westlaw research by James Filkins, a doctor and lawyer who has written about the criminal prosecution of physicians.
Replicating Filkins' research, Reuters tallied around 37 reported criminal cases in the decade from 2001 to 2011, with most recent cases against doctors for over-prescribing painkillers and other controlled substances.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration information suggests a similar trend. For 2003, the agency reported 15 physician arrests that resulted in convictions. By 2008, the most recent year with comprehensive data, the number had grown to 43.
Medical negligence cases are typically handled in civil court, with the victim or victim's family seeking money damages from the doctor.
In the case of Jackson's doctor, Conrad Murray, prosecutors allege his negligence was so extreme that he should be charged with involuntary manslaughter and punished with prison time.
While the number of criminal malpractice cases is not large, the American Medical Association has cautioned that the trend has interfered with the practice of medicine. Civil prosecutions for monetary damages were sufficient to hold doctors accountable, the organization said.
In 1995, the group adopted a resolution opposing the "attempted criminalization of health care decision-making especially as represented by the current trend toward the criminalization of malpractice."
The trend is, in part, due to an expansion in white-collar criminal law and drug control laws to include unintentional violations by doctors, said Diane Hoffmann, a law professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.
Many recent cases have been brought under the Controlled Substances Act, enacted in 1970, and similar state laws. To establish guilt under the act, the prosecution must prove the physician knowingly and intentionally prescribed the medication outside "the usual course of professional practice" or not for a "legitimate medical purpose."
SMITH AND JACKSON CASES DIFFER
Prosecutors faced this question in the much-publicized case against Anna Nicole Smith's physician, Sandeep Kapoor, on charges of violating the controlled substances law.
The case hinged on whether Kapoor believed in good faith there was a medical purpose for providing the celebrity with an array of prescription drugs that led to her overdose and death in 2007, according to his lawyer Ellyn Garofalo.
The jury acquitted Kapoor last year.
In the Michael Jackson case, California prosecutors are not charging Murray with violating a controlled substances law. Propofol, the anesthetic Murray is accused of giving to Jackson, is not a controlled substance.
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