Pubdate: Thu, 16 Dec 2004
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Contact:  2004 The Washington Post Company
Author: Jerry Markon, Washington Post Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Chronic Pain)
Bookmark: (Oxycontin/Oxycodone)


Va. Man Faces Possible Life Term on Trafficking Counts

A federal jury convicted a prominent former pain doctor on drug trafficking 
charges yesterday, siding with prosecutors in an increasingly contentious 
nationwide dispute over whether prescribing large doses of powerful 
narcotics is criminal behavior or good medicine.

Jurors found William E. Hurwitz guilty of running a drug conspiracy out of 
his McLean office, convicting him on 50 counts -- including trafficking 
that caused the death of one patient and seriously injured two others. They 
acquitted him of nine other counts and deadlocked on the final three in the 
62-count indictment.

U.S. District Judge Leonard D. Wexler ordered the jury back to the federal 
courthouse in Alexandria to resume deliberations today. He then revoked 
Hurwitz's $2 million bail. Hurwitz removed his tie, handed the change in 
his pockets to his attorneys and walked out of the courtroom in the custody 
of U.S. marshals. He had bowed his head slightly when the verdict was read.

The convictions marked the downfall of a controversial doctor whose 
treatment methods attracted loyalty from many patients but also scrutiny 
from area medical boards as early as 1991. Hurwitz, a major figure in the 
growing field of pain management who was once profiled on "60 Minutes," 
faces up to life in prison even with the acquittals.

As cancer patients and others in chronic pain became increasingly vocal 
about access to successful treatment, Hurwitz became a symbol in a 
nationwide debate. Advocates for patients with chronic pain portrayed him 
as a fully licensed doctor prescribing perfectly legal drugs to patients in 
dire need with nowhere else to turn.

But the government accused Hurwitz of prescribing excessive amounts of 
dangerous drugs -- in one instance more than 1,600 pills a day -- to 
addicts and others, some of whom then sold the medication on a lucrative 
black market. Prosecutors said the dosages led to the deaths of three 
patients overall.

The nearly complete verdict capped a massive three-year investigation into 
doctors, pharmacists and patients suspected of selling potent narcotics and 
fueling an epidemic that ravaged Appalachia and triggered scores of other 

It is part of a broad federal crackdown on what authorities call 
over-prescribing of OxyContin and other painkillers.

Although hundreds of people have been charged, Hurwitz is one of only a few 
doctors convicted on federal charges that bring such serious penalties. He 
is also, authorities and experts on pain management agreed, perhaps the 
most prominent doctor to be targeted.

Patient advocates reacted to the verdict with tears and fury, blasting the 
government for what they called criminalizing medical decisions that should 
be left to doctors. They predicted that many of the estimated 30 percent of 
Americans suffering from chronic pain would now be left untreated.

"Any doctor encountering a patient in pain will now run for the hills," 
said Siobhan Reynolds, president of the New York-based Pain Relief Network. 
She called Hurwitz "a hero and a medical pioneer," comparing him to the 
astronomer Galileo.

Marvin D. Miller, an attorney for Hurwitz, said the verdict was 
"disheartening" and that "the American people are suffering because law 
enforcement is taking over the practice of medicine."

But prosecutors hailed the conviction. "This sends a major message to 
anyone who would use the treatment of pain as a cover for being a drug 
trafficker," said U.S. Attorney Paul J. McNulty.

The battle between physicians who specialize in treating pain and the 
government has been escalating for several years. Those tensions were 
evident during Hurwitz's six-week trial. Supporters of Hurwitz looked on as 
prosecutors called more than 60 witnesses and played tapes of the doctor 
unknowingly talking to patients who were government informants. More than 
20 former patients of Hurwitz testified, most of whom had themselves been 
convicted of drug crimes.

"For numerous patients, Doctor Hurwitz ran a pill mill, a criminal 
enterprise in the guise of a medical office," Assistant U.S. Attorney Gene 
Rossi said in closing arguments. "His waiting room was filled with sleeping 
and incoherent patients, whose arms would be covered with track marks, 
needle marks or ulcers the size of a nickel."

Defense attorneys portrayed Hurwitz as a caring and courageous doctor who 
put his patients' welfare above his own during a career that included a 
stint as a Peace Corps physician in Brazil.

"Inside of him burned a flame, a commitment to try to help humanity," 
defense attorney Patrick S. Hallinan told the jury in closing arguments.

Four former patients testified for the defense about their fervent devotion 
to Hurwitz. In his own testimony, Hurwitz defended his treatment methods 
and admitted that he prescribed large doses of narcotics to patients who 
had been arrested or failed drug screenings. He did it, he said, because he 
believed that they were in pain.

Staff writer Marc Kaufman contributed to this report.
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