A pain clinic doctor accused in a pill mill case probably won’t face prison time or be barred from practicing medicine after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge Thursday in a federal case that highlights the difficulty of attaining criminal punishment for doctors accused of overprescribing.
Dr. Samuel Mintlow, 56, of Conyers, was indicted in August on a charge of felony conspiracy to traffic in controlled substances at Liberty Wellness clinic in Norcross — a charge similar to what a crack cocaine dealer could face. They said he wrote prescriptions for highly addictive painkillers to patients who had no legitimate medical need for them.
DEA Investigators said patients flocked to the clinic from as far away as Tennessee and Virginia to score pain pills, some of which were later resold on the street for a profit.
Prosecutor Jeff Brown told the judge Mintlow wrote a prescription for 120, 30 mg pills of oxycodone to a resident of Virginia who had no legitimate medical need for them.
However, federal prosecutors this week reached an agreement with Mintlow’s lawyer that allowed Mintlow to enter a negotiated guilty plea before U.S. Magistrate Court Judge Janet F. King to an obscure misdemeanor charge that typically applies to people who misbrand a drug and sell it in another state.
Brown recommended a sentence for Mintlow of year of home confinement. The maximum penalty for the crime is a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. A judge will sentence Mintlow at a later date.
According to his defense attorney Page Pate, Mintlow will continue practicing medicine and does not anticipate having any adverse action taken against his license by the state medical board. Pate said the doctor got caught up doing business with two unscrupulous clinic owners, but he wasn’t aware of their criminal activities.
“Some patients were abusing drugs or selling drugs to other people,” Pate acknowledged. “Dr. Mintlow was not aware of that.”
One of the clinic operators, Mark Del Percio, of Boca Raton, Fla., pleaded guilty in December to a felony charge of conspiracy to traffic drugs and is awaiting sentencing. The other, Charles T. Laing, 30, Boynton Beach, Fla., was arrested in a sweep that netted 32 people for drug trafficking in the Hawkins County, Tenn., where authorities said Laing had traveled to peddle oxycodone. He was sentenced in March to 13 years in prison.
No law governs how much or what type of drugs a doctor can prescribe a patient, which can make it difficult to prove doctors were in the wrong.
“These are difficult cases, because you’re not encountering a traditional street peddler for whom there is never a legitimate reason to be selling cocaine or heroin,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Horn. “The practice of medicine necessarily involves a large amount of discretion by the doctor to treat a patient.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Attorney’s Office say prescription drug abuse has become an epidemic in recent years, and prescription drug overdose deaths now outnumber automobile accident fatalities in the United States. Since 2009, about 17 defendants have been prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office based in Atlanta on prescription drug-related charges. Many of the high-profile cases have been winding through the court system and are now getting close to trial.
Elsewhere in the country, several doctors have been exonerated on prescription drug trafficking charges after trials became a battle of dueling doctor experts weighing in on whether the practitioner’s methods were legitimate, said Pate, who has represented other pain clinic defendants.
Pate said if Mintlow’s case had gone to trial, two respected doctors were prepared to testify for the defense that Mintlow was not prescribing medicine improperly.
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