California's Attorney General has announced criminal charges against physician Dr. Thomas Keller related to prescribing painkillers. According to the criminal charges, Keller prescribed powerful opioids including Vicodin, oxycodone, OxyContin, Percocet, and morphine, at levels far exceeding accepted medical practice.
The multiple charges against Keller relate to nine patients, including charges of second-degree murder and felony elder abuse in connection with the deaths of five patients. According to the complaint, in the period of time between October 2011 and July 2017, Keller prescribed an incredibly high amount of opioids in quantities that far exceeded the Morphine Equivalent Dosage standard set by the CDC. He continued prescribing at these levels, despite the fact that he had received Red Flag warnings from pharmacies and insurance companies and was aware of his patients' deaths from drug overdose. Keller pleaded not guilty and is being held on $12 million bail.
Another doctor in Arkansas is facing criminal charges as part of a patient's overdose deaths. Pathologist Robert Morris Levy was indicted by a federal grand jury on three counts of involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of three patients. Levy was fired from an Arkansas veterans hospital after officials said he had been impaired while on duty. He was charged in the death of the three veterans who he allegedly misdiagnosed. According to prosecutors, he later altered patients' medical records to conceal his mistakes.
This weekend, another doctor who faced criminal charges related to opioid deaths made headlines. Barry Schultz, a former Florida physician who is now imprisoned, gave an interview to 60 Minutes. Schultz is serving 157 years in prison on drug trafficking charges. The Florida doctor operated a clinic where he prescribed astronomical volumes of opioids. According to DEA records, one of Schultz's patients was prescribed nearly 17,000 of the highest potency oxycodone pills in a seven-month period. He once prescribed a thousand opioid pills to a pregnant woman. Schultz was making more than $6,000 a day prescribing and selling opioids to his patients.
In the interview, Schultz claimed that he is a "scapegoat" who took the fall for a systematic problem. He claimed some of his patients needed extremely high doses of opioids for long periods of time to alleviate severe, chronic pain. He stated that he felt it was "unethical and discriminatory" to limit the dose of medication. He claimed that he was unaware of the increase in overdose deaths and would have changed his approach had he known.
The CDC estimates that 2019 could see a decline of approximately 3.4% in overdose deaths from last year. While a decrease is encouraging news, about 68,000 Americans died due to a drug overdose in 2018- a 3.4% reduction would be around 65,688 deaths. Overdose deaths are decreasing significantly in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, where heroin and painkillers are becoming less available. However, in the western part of the US, the growing popularity of cocaine cut with fentanyl, as well as the combinations of methamphetamine and fentanyl, are driving a growing number of new overdose deaths.