N.Va. Pain Doctor's License Is Suspended for One Year Man Accused of Overprescribing Narcotics

August 3, 2005 - The Virginia Board of Medicine has suspended the license of a prominent Chantilly pain doctor who has been named in court papers as a target of a far-reaching federal investigation into prescription drug abuse, officials said.

The board accused Joseph K. Statkus of overprescribing powerful narcotics and failing to monitor patients, some of whom became addicted, according to state records. In one instance, he kept prescribing opioids for a 16-year-old auto accident victim despite warnings from other doctors that she was too young to handle the medicine, according to a July 15 board order that suspended Statkus's license for one year. The girl distributed her medication to other teens and adults in Loudoun County, the board said.

Statkus denied wrongdoing and defended his record of helping patients in chronic pain who had nowhere else to turn. "My record-keeping could have been better, but did I do anything wrong in how I took care of patients? No, I do not believe I did," he said in an interview last week at his office, where staffers were busy trying to place his patients with other doctors. "I have never done anything for a patient that I am ashamed of, never," he added.

Court documents name Statkus as one of two major targets in a longstanding federal investigation of 60 to 80 physicians, pharmacists and patients suspected of distributing OxyContin and other potent narcotics. More than 50 people have been convicted. The other major target, pain management specialist William E. Hurwitz, was found guilty last year of running a drug conspiracy out of his McLean office and is serving a 25-year prison sentence.

With Hurwitz's conviction and the recent medical board action, prosecutors are taking a fresh look at Statkus, said law enforcement sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because no charges have been filed.

Prosecutors moved against Hurwitz because he was a nationally known leader in the pain management community who was profiled on "60 Minutes" and because they had evidence that his prescriptions often found their way into a lucrative black market. Statkus had more than 800 patients when his license was suspended; most were in Northern Virginia. Hurwitz had patients in 39 states.

Jurors convicted Hurwitz of trafficking that caused the death of one patient and seriously injured two others. "There is certainly bad behavior with Statkus, but it's different from Hurwitz," one law enforcement source involved in the investigation said.

Statkus, 49, a former U.S. Navy doctor and anesthesiologist, said he was "shocked" by the medical board's suspension and plans to appeal. He provided a copy of an earlier proposed medical board order, dated the week before the board's July 15 meeting, that would have put him on probation and required him to take classes in record-keeping and addictive medicine. He said he had no idea why board members decided on the harsher penalty.

"This was a bait-and-switch. It took me completely by surprise," he said.

William L. Harp, the medical board's executive director, would not comment on Statkus or any specific case.

The federal investigation, "Operation Cotton Candy," has helped fuel a nationwide debate over the growing field of pain management. Advocates for those in chronic pain say the government is targeting licensed doctors who prescribe legal drugs for patients in dire need.

But Paul J. McNulty, the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, said only a small number of doctors who, like Hurwitz, "crossed the line between a physician and a drug trafficker," need to fear prosecution. He characterized the investigation as active: "You find one trafficker, and the tentacles reach into different communities and different directions, and you pursue those individuals."

McNulty would not comment on Statkus but said any criminal charges brought in the investigation must meet a high legal standard -- proving that a doctor "knowingly distributed controlled substances, and not for medical purposes."

An FBI affidavit alleges that Statkus knew that at least one of his patients was distributing some of her prescribed medication. The affidavit, filed in 2002, says Statkus was expressly told that one of his patients, Shirley Ann Coleman, "was a drug dealer" and was distributing Dilaudid in Northern Virginia and in Kentucky. Coleman pleaded guilty to drug-conspiracy charges in 2002.

The Virginia Medical Board's findings against Statkus say that he learned from an anonymous letter that the 16-year-old auto accident victim was also distributing her medication. Only then did Statkus request a urine screen, the board said. When the girl tested positive for several drugs, Statkus stopped treating her.

Statkus defended his treatment of the girl.

"We had to give her something to control her pain. Here was a kid in her teenage years, and she had arthritis," Statkus said. "The amount of medication we gave her wasn't a lot, but that little bit, it looked like she was sharing it with classmates."

The board faulted Statkus's treatment of eight patients overall, including one who was given the narcotic Roxicodone for a panic disorder, which the board called "contrary to sound medical judgment." Statkus said the medication was actually for her pain but that when it wore off the patient went through withdrawal and began having panic attacks.

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