After Unanimous Reversal in Court of Appeals, Government Seeks Again to Convict Dr. Hurwitz as Major Drug Dealer Even Though He Never Profited from Prescriptions <br> DPA Calls Government Prosecution of Pain Physician Harmful; Likely to Dissuade Doctors from Providing Effective Pain Management Care
On Monday, Dr. William Hurwitz will begin a second trial on 50 counts of unlawful prescribing of opioid pain medication as prosecutors seek to hold him responsible for the misdeeds of a small number of his patients, some of whom secretly sold or misused the pills they were prescribed. The government is charging Dr. Hurwitz as a drug kingpin, though it has never claimed that Dr. Hurwitz made a dime from these sales. In August of last year, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously reversed Dr. Hurwitz's first conviction and 25-year sentence because the trial judge had barred him from showing in the 2004 trial that he had prescribed the medicines in good faith to provide what he believed was the best medical care of his patients.
This case is being watched closely by both doctors and patients who must deal with issues surrounding pain medication on a regular basis. The government's prosecution of Dr. Hurwitz occurs in the context of a nationwide law enforcement campaign against the use of powerful analgesics to treat patients suffering from severe chronic pain. Scores of resulting physician convictions has seriously chilled the willingness of many physicians to provide adequate treatment for their patients, for fear that they could end up as criminal drug defendants through no fault of their own.
"It is profoundly disturbing that federal cops and lawyers have second-guessed the medical judgment of Dr. Hurwitz and the Virginia Medical Board, which oversees his practice and chosen to treat him as a drug dealer instead of the compassionate physician who he is," said Daniel Abrahamson, director of Legal Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. Abrahamson continued, "This misguided prosecution, carried out in the name of the federal war on drugs, has already ruined one pain expert's career, and will erect even steeper barriers for millions of Americans who suffer from untreated or under-treated pain from finding effective relief at the hands of skilled and compassionate doctors. State medical boards, not police and prosecutors, should regulate medical practice."
Dr. Hurwitz's defense is backed by a large and prestigious coalition of leading health institutions and practitioners including the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the American Pain Foundation, the National Pain Foundation, the National Foundation for the Treatment of Pain, and the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons.
In September 2005, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) filed an amicus curiae (friend-of-the-court) brief in Dr. Hurwitz's appeal, signed by leading pain treatment experts from across the country. The brief sought to educate the court about the difficulties faced by pain patients seeking adequate treatment. It corrected common misunderstandings about pain therapy and explained how the federal government misconstrued both federal law and accepted standards of medical practice in prosecuting Dr. Hurwitz.
Dr. Hurwitz's legal plight is part of an eightfold increase in physician prosecutions over the past three years. An estimated 30 percent--or 50 to 75 million Americans--suffer from chronic pain on a daily basis. As such, untreated pain is considered the nation's largest health problem and results in more lost days from work than heart disease and cancer combined.
Dr. Hurwitz is being represented pro bono by attorneys Richard Sauber, of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, and Larry Robbins, of Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck & Untereiner. "We have taken on Dr. Hurwitz's defense because of our concern for the grave legal and social policy ramifications of this misguided prosecution, and because we believe Dr. Hurwitz was operating as a physician and not a drug dealer, as the government claims." Mr. Sauber said.