Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Los Angeles Physician Charged With Misdemeanor Counts For Prescribing Painkillers: What's The Real Story Here?

A Los Angeles physician from the San Gabriel area, Dr. Zhiwei Lin, 52, a board-certified neurologist, was arrested September 2, 2010 for allegedly prescribing pain medication to homeless people who didn't need the drugs, according to the Los Angeles Times' article "L.A. Doctor Arrested For Allegedly Prescribing Painkillers to Homeless People Who Didn't Need Them."

A misdemeanor complaint and arrest warrant is only an accusation is not evidence of guilt. Dr. Lin is presumed innocent and is entitled to a fair trial at which the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Dr. Zhiwei Lin was arraigned on Friday, September 3 on five counts of illegally prescribing drugs, misdemeanors each punishable by up to a year in County Jail and a $20,000 fine, according to the arrest warrant filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

This case shows that a multitude of agencies are investigating and prosecuting prescription fraud or health care fraud:
Attorney General's Office, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), District Attorney's Office, U.S. Attorney's Office and City Attorney's Office. This case was investigated by the Health Authority Law Enforcement Task Force (HALT) and Sgt. Steve Opferman has many years of experience with health care issues, beginning with his years at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.  

Sgt. Opferman runs the medical fraud unit that made the arrest and was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as stating that Dr. Lin is suspected of prescribing Vicodin, a powerful pain reliever popular among drug abusers, to homeless people without legitimate medical need.

Sgt. Opferman was further quoted as stating that it is believed that homeless "patients" were brought to the doctor by recruiters, also known as cappers. The cappers would pay the homeless people for their prescriptions and turn them over to dealers who sold them by the pill at a huge mark-up. Presently, there is no allegation of Medi-Cal or Medicare fraud and it is not clear how the billing was done for medications that were allegedly medically unnecessary. This is a case that could grow if fraud allegations are added to the case.

Dr. Lin appears to have two practices: one in San Gabriel and one on Western. At this point, it is not clear if Dr. Lin knew what was going on in his Western office and whether he was involved in the alleged patient recruitment. The fact that he was not charged with patient recruitment or capping makes it appear as if there must be more to this story and whether someone else other than Dr. Lin is involved in some of the alleged wrongdoing. Otherwise, it seems like a case where the counts charged would be felonies rather than misdemeanors.

The L.A. Times quoted a security officer at the building as stating that that Dr. Lin's practice drew "strange characters" on the days it was open and that police had been called to at least one disturbance. This means that the practice was not open every day.

The L.A. Times indicated that Dr. Lin's case would be referred to the Medical Board of California, which could pursue action against his license. Generally, the Medical Board will wait until the criminal case is resolved before it take administrative action unless there is  a danger to patient health. In addition, the  DEA is also reported to be involved and could pull Dr. Lin's federal permit to prescribe drugs prone to abuse.

Attorney Commentary: I have several thoughts on this case.  First, the misdemeanor counts indicate that Dr. Lin may have been out of the loop on the alleged capping or selling or dealing of drugs afterwards. If there were videotape of Dr. Lin paying referral fees or being involved in either, generally felony counts would have been filed. The real money in this type of alleged scam is in the money obtained by selling the prescriptions. Dr. Lin or his office would have only received money for the office visit.

Second, when physicians have second offices which are not the primary offices, these issues are more likely to happen. The L.A. Times article noted that the office was not always open. When physician assistants or office managers have more presence in the office than the physician -- these issues are more likely to occur. The article does not mention anyone else being involved, but based on my experience -- some part of the story is missing.

Third, this may have been a rejected case by the District Attorney's Office and this is why it was charged as a misdemeanor. Hard to tell. Based on my experience, Sgt. Opferman has a reputation for being pragmatic and understanding what happens in the "real" world since he spends a lot of time coordinating investigations between agencies. He also has a reputation for being fairly straight forward. Thus, we will have to wait and see what the real facts are in this case. 

Posted by Tracy Green, Esq. Please email Ms. Green at tgreen@greenassoc.com or call her at 213-233-2260 to schedule a complimentary 30-minute consultation. 

The firm focuses its practice on the representation of licensed professionals, individuals and businesses in civil, business, administrative and criminal proceedings. They have a specialty in representing licensed health care providers and in health care fraud related matters in California and throughout the country. Their website is: http://www.greenassoc.com/


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