Friday, November 30, 2001
Doctor sentenced for giving OxyContin
Franklin Sutherland received 70 months in prison, the most severe sentence so far in an investigation of fraud.
By LAURENCE HAMMACK
THE ROANOKE TIMES
ABINGDON - A Southwest Virginia physician who caused more pain than he cured was sentenced Thursday to 70 months in prison for prescribing drugs to abusers.
Franklin Sutherland was convicted earlier this year of using his clinic in Grundy to dispense thousands of pills to people who had no medical need for them.
Federal prosecutors said that while most doctors are conscientious when prescribing powerful painkillers, the exceptions such as Sutherland have contributed to rampant abuse of OxyContin and other prescription drugs in far Southwest Virginia.
U.S. District Court Judge James P. Jones said his sentence should "serve as a warning to those in the medical profession."
The sentence was the most severe so far in an ongoing investigation of health care fraud in the coalfields. Three other doctors have been convicted and sentenced ; another is scheduled to be sentenced in January.
A jury convicted Sutherland, 48, of writing 427 illegal prescriptions after hearing testimony that many of his patients were addicts or recreational drug users.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Randy Ramseyer said Buchanan County authorities told him that "the number one drug pushers in our community are the doctors, and the doctors don't care about what they're putting on the street.
"All they care about is getting patients and making money."
Sutherland said he was only trying to help people in pain. However, he admitted that he used bad judgement in some cases and got too close to his patients, some of whom needed drugs to cope with both physical pain and chemical dependence.
"I realize that in a lot of these cases I thought with my heart and I didn't think with my mind," he told Jones. "But your honor, I really did try to relieve people's pain."
Sutherland had faced up to 262 months in prison under mandatory sentencing guidelines. But Jones reduced his exposure under the guidelines after finding that the doctor suffered from diminished capacity that was caused in part by a head injury he suffered as an infant.
Defense attorney Thomas Dillard asked the judge to also consider the many patients - some of whom attended Sutherland's trial and sentencing - who still regard him as caring doctor and upstanding citizen.
Sutherland, a third-generation physician, has surrendered his license and will never practice medicine again, Dillard said. "The sentence and punishment really has already been imposed," he said, referring to Sutherland's loss of standing in the medical and local communities.
Ramseyer objected to Jones' decision to put Sutherland in a lower sentencing range of 70 to 87 months in prison. Although Sutherland might be a white-collar criminal with standing in the community, the prosecutor said, he still should be held fully responsible for distributing more than 20,000 pills.
"What would happen to a street dealer who put 20,000 units of narcotics on the street?" Ramseyer said.
Tylox and OxyContin made up more than half of the total prescriptions. Other prescription drugs included Lorcet, Lortab and Dexedrine.
Federal authorities began to investigate Sutherland five years ago, after he began to supply pain pills to a drug-addicted Buchanan County sheriff's deputy he befriended at a health club.
Although the Drug Enforcement Administration has singled out OxyContin as being particularly prone to abuse, the agency has also said it has no plans to restrict the drug's availability to legitimate patients who clearly benefit from it.
Pain management specialists have expressed concerns that negative publicity about the drug - which has been linked to a surge in crime and dozens of fatal overdoses in Southwest Virginia - might discourage doctors from using it.
"Many doctors now are not prescribing any pain medication," Sutherland said. "So the people who are truly in pain and suffering are not able to find a doctor to treat them."