December 16, 2004: Headlines: COS - Brazil: Medicine: Crime: Pain: MSNBC: Dr. William E. Hurwitz, who volunteered as the medical director for Peace Corps Brazil in the 1970s, convicted of drug charges

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Brazil: Peace Corps Brazil: The Peace Corps in Brazil: December 16, 2004: Headlines: COS - Brazil: Medicine: Crime: Pain: MSNBC: Dr. William E. Hurwitz, who volunteered as the medical director for Peace Corps Brazil in the 1970s, convicted of drug charges

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Dr. William E. Hurwitz, who volunteered as the medical director for Peace Corps Brazil in the 1970s, convicted of drug charges

Dr. William E. Hurwitz, who volunteered as the medical director for Peace Corps Brazil in the 1970s, convicted of drug charges

Dr. William E. Hurwitz, who volunteered as the medical director for Peace Corps Brazil in the 1970s, convicted of drug charges

Pain doctor convicted of drug charges
Va. man faces possible life term on trafficking counts
By Jerry Markon
Updated: 9:47 a.m. ET Dec. 16, 2004

WASHINGTON - 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.

Massive investigation
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 crimes.

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."

Prosecutors: Verdict sends a 'major message'
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.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company

When this story was posted in December 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: MSNBC

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Brazil; Medicine; Crime; Pain



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