The Deadly Problem of Prescription Pain Pills

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by Michael Heygood

In February 2012, a Chicago doctor was sentenced to four life terms in prison for the overdose deaths of four of his patients. According to prosecutors in the case, Dr. Paul Volkman dispensed more of the powerful painkiller oxycodone from 2003 to 2005 than any other physician in the country.

According to the U.S. Attorneys involved with the case, “Volkman’s actions created and prolonged debilitating addictions; distributed countless drugs to be sold on the street; and took the lives of numerous individuals who died just days after visiting him.”

One of the patients Volkman was convicted of killing through an overdose was Steven Hieneman. He died on April 20, 2005, shortly after Volkman prescribed a combination of oxycodone, hydrocodone, and other drugs. “He was no more than a cash cow to them,” his mother, Paula Eastly, said after the sentencing. “The week before he died he tried to commit suicide and they knew that, and they still seen him. So that’s how money-hungry they were.”

In Texas, the Houston Chronicle has published findings that some area “Doctors [are] tied to multiple overdoses.” According the paper, more than a dozen Houston-area physicians have lost three or more patients to accidental prescription overdoses in recent years — including doctors accused of running pill mills and some of the state’s top prescribers of pain pills and anti-anxiety drugs. The paper found that many of the deaths involved people who fatally ingested cocktails of medicines featuring opioid pain drugs combined with anti-anxiety medicines like alprazolam (Xanax).

The Houston Chronicle report identifies some doctors involved with more than one patient death. For example, Dr. Ruth Atlas, a Houston pediatric neurologist, apparently prescribed medicines to four people who died in 2008 and 2009. According to the Houston Chronicle, Atlas has for years run a high-volume practice that attracted more than 700 patients a year to her clinic. Dr. Christina Clardy, who has faced federal prosecution for fraud and conspiracy charges, was identified in the Chronicle report as treating physician or prescriber in three deaths. Three others who died in accidental overdoses got prescriptions signed by Dr. Gerald Ratinov, a 76-year-old neurologist based in downtown Houston who formerly served as medical director at several so-called pill mills, according to the paper’s report. The Chronicle stated that Ratinov faces an on-going medical board disciplinary inquiry involving complaints about those clinics.

More recently, a 68-year old Silsbee, Texas man was indicted on three felony charges for his alleged involvement in a woman’s fatal overdose from pain pills. Tracy Cunningham died of an overdose at the man’s residence on April 23. During the investigation it was alleged by witnesses that the man had given Cunningham prescription drugs just prior to her death. He reportedly had prescriptions for the drugs – Hydrocodone, Alphrazolam, and Carisprodol – that were discovered to be the cause of Cunningham’s overdose.

According to the Beaumont Enterprise, investigators looking into the case have uncovered a connection to clinics and pharmacies housed in three adjacent buildings on Houston’s southwest side. The man is accused of recruiting people to go on so-called “doctor shopping” forays to these buildings on Bissonnet Street as well as a few other Houston sites. The goal was to obtain hordes of prescription drugs from multiple clinics and pharmacies that could be resold. The drugs include familiar medications – such as the painkiller hydrocodone and muscle relaxant Carisoprodol – that have made Houston a hub for prescription drug fraud in recent years and have led to hundreds of overdose deaths in Harris County.

According to the Beamount Enterprise, keeping track of the clinics and pharmacies in the Bissonnet-area buildings is difficult because they often change names and switch offices. For example, the paper found that one pharmacy, CJ Medical, was explaining to customers that it was no longer called “Pace Medical” but still being run by the same management. And, an adjacent clinic, E-Z Medical, had a sign on its locked door stating it had relocated to another floor of that same building. Similarly, another clinic, Lifetime Wellness, also had switched rooms in the same building.

The Fight to Hold Pharmacies and Doctors Responsible

More people die from prescription drug overdoses each year than from heroin and cocaine combined. Part of the problem arises from prescription medications being obtained illegally—such as when pharmacies are robbed or teens steal drugs from their parents. However, another very significant part of the problem—that is not being adequately addressed—is the alarming number of deaths due to overdose on medications that were prescribed for the deceased by their doctors.

Patients who die from overdoses of drugs which have been prescribed for them most often overdose on prescription opioid painkillers. Some of the most commonly used prescription painkillers include:

  • Vicodin (sold generically under the name hydrocodone)
  • OxyContin (sold generically as oxycodone)
  • Dilaudid (sold generically under the name Hydromorphone)
  • Methadone
  • Duragesic or fentanyl pain patch (sold generically under the brand names Sandoz, Watson and Mylan).

The lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson are among the nation’s leaders in handling cases involving potent opioids, and our law firm has the experience to prosecute medical malpractice lawsuits involving a wide array of serious opioid painkillers, including Vicodin and hydrocodone, OxyContin and oxycodone, methadone, hydromorphone, Fentanyl, and others. To receive a free legal consultation and find out if you are eligible to file a case, please call our toll-free hotline at 1-877-446-9001, or by filling out our free case evaluation form located on this page.