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A judge said the Dublin physician has not yet acknowledged that what she did was wrong.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
A judge sent a former Dublin doctor to prison Tuesday for illegally distributing prescription medicine, a sometimes deadly practice that federal authorities plan to fight with more manpower.
Linda Sue Cheek, a 64-year-old rural physician who marketed herself as an alternative medicine guru and pain specialist, was sentenced in federal court in Roanoke to two years and nine months .
A jury convicted Cheek in February of 172 felony drug charges for prescribing pain-control drugs and other medicine without a federal Drug Enforcement Administration permit between March 2009 and May 2010.
Before ordering Cheek to immediately begin her sentence, Judge Glen Conrad also levied a required special assessment of $100 per felony conviction, or more than $17,000, on Cheek, of Roanoke, and said she likely will forfeit the medical office building in which she operated New River Medical Associates because it was used to facilitate her drug crimes.
In her favor, Cheek, who began studying medicine at 39, exhibited a genuine desire to help difficult-to-treat pain patients, Conrad said. Unlike a street drug dealer who hides, she alerted authorities about her unorthodox prescribing practices, in which she wrote prescriptions by citing her own expired prescribing permit or the permit of another doctor, Conrad said.
On the other hand, she was on probation for a 2008 health care fraud conviction and had lost her DEA prescribing permit but continued to prescribe drugs, the judge said. Cheek also failed throughout her trial and two-day sentencing hearing to admit that what she did was wrong, according to the judge, who said Cheek will never again practice medicine.
“You can’t violate the law and be a successful practitioner,” Conrad told her.
Cheek received 27 months behind bars on her drug distribution convictions and six more months for violating her probation. She handed her earrings and purse to family members, hugged her husband, Bill, three times, saying, “I’m sorry,” and was led away by a member of the U.S. Marshals Service, grabbing one last tissue from a box on the witness stand where she had testified tearfully earlier in the day.
Dubbing her “a drug dealer wearing a white coat,” prosecutor Jennie Waering said in court papers that Cheek and all other doctors who disregard the distribution rules for prescription medicine “contribute directly” to an opiate prescription abuse epidemic in Southwest Virginia and “are the major source” of the opiates.
And opiates are killing hundreds of people in a worsening scourge, officials said.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner at the Virginia Department of Health found that in 2011, the latest period for which numbers are available, 212 people in the agency’s western district died of prescription drug poisoning versus 27 who overdosed while taking the illegal street drugs cocaine or heroin, Waering said. The death rate from four commonly abused opiates — fentanyl, hydrocodone, methadone and oxycodone — was 20 people per 100,000 residents in Pulaski County, where Cheek practices, versus a statewide rate of nine people per 100,000 residents, Waering said.
However, for every overdose death, prosecutors said, an estimated 4,600 other people are abusing prescription drugs. Prescription drug abuse “has evolved from a law enforcement problem to what we now think is a full-fledged public health crisis,” said Tim Heaphy, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia.
Heaphy said the DEA has recently assigned two additional agents to a newly formed squad of 12 regional law enforcement officers who will focus new manpower on the issue. The squad will target doctors who are large, illicit distributors of prescription medicine — people such as Cheek.
Cheek wrote 900 prescriptions over one six-day period in early 2010, Heaphy said.
Her conviction “is one part of a whole strategy we’re trying to implement,” Heaphy said.
The other parts include promotion of a prescription drug monitoring database for use by health care professionals, educational events for doctors and others, use of drug diversion courts and events such as collection days for excess pharmaceuticals.
Officials will know the program is working if the skyrocketing death count levels off or decreases, if parents contact police and prosecutors less often for help with prescription abuse issues in their homes and neighborhoods, and if employers see the labor force expand as people get off drugs and qualify to work, officials said.
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