John Michael Gowder and James Heaton were convicted last fall. A third doctor, George David Gowder, pleaded guilty in March 2019 to dispensing pain medication outside the scope of his professional practice.

Ex-Georgia hospital CEO, 2 doctors sentenced on federal drug charges

The former CEO of a North Georgia hospital and two doctors are headed to federal prison for their roles in a yearslong pain pill distribution scheme.

John Michael Gowder and James Heaton were convicted last fall after investigators learned Heaton prescribed his boss more than 15,000 doses of painkillers over several years, federal prosecutors said. 

RELATED: Georgia hospital’s ex-CEO, doctor convicted of 100-plus illegal prescription crimes

Gowder, 62, was an executive at Union General Hospital in Blairsville from 2011 to 2015, serving as its chief operating officer and later as chief executive officer. Heaton, 63, operated a family practice in Blairsville and also served as the medical director of Union General’s nursing home.

MORE: Georgia hospital’s ex-CEO, 2 doctors indicted on federal drug charges

According to prosecutors, Heaton prescribed Gowder large quantities of hydrocodone and oxycodone from 2012 to 2015, knowing that the pills had “no legitimate medical purpose.”

To avoid getting caught, Gowder had some of the prescriptions filled at pharmacies in North Carolina and Tennessee, authorities said.

In exchange for the drugs, he recommended that the hospital purchase Heaton’s sleep study, increase his pay for various roles and appoint the doctor to the hospital’s board of directors.

Heaton received a six-year prison sentence, while Gowder was sentenced to one year and one day behind bars, prosecutors said Thursday in a news release. 

A third doctor, 63-year-old George David Gowder, pleaded guilty in March 2019 to dispensing pain medication outside the scope of his professional practice. The hospital’s former emergency room director is the brother of John Michael Gowder, authorities said. He was arrested in April 2015 after deputies caught him passing off forged oxycodone prescriptions at two pharmacies in Union County. 

According to prosecutors, George David Gowder routinely wrote or called in high-dose pain prescriptions in the names of family members and fictitious patients, including some he described as “missionaries.”

Many of those prescriptions were filled by hospital employees at his direction, prosecutors said, adding that he also stole pills from some of his patients.

He was sentenced to 18 months in prison June 10. 

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