50 Years, 50 Stories

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Published Aug. 14, 2002, in The Ledger Independent

The arrest of Garrison physician Dr. Fortune Williams in Baltimore, charged with prescribing painkillers for non-medical purposes, indicates a growing problem in eastern Kentucky, law enforcement officials said.

The abuse of prescription pain medication has surpassed the use of cocaine, marijuana and heroin in total number of local drug arrests, said Lewis County Sheriff Bill Lewis.

Lewis said Lewis County began noticing an increase in the use of drugs like hydrocodone and OxyContin four years ago. The sudden popularity of prescription drugs is baffling, Lewis said.

What the sheriff said he does know is that it leads to an increase in crime and robberies for people to feed their habits. Two pharmacies in Maysville have been robbed since Jan. 1 for the drug.

While Williams is the only doctor from the Buffalo Trace area arrested for suspicion of such crimes, Lewis said he thinks there are other doctors here that may not be prescribing drugs for the right reasons.

“We have doctors that do it intentionally,” Lewis said. “It is a major problem, and it is getting bigger.”

An addiction to pain killers is very destructive and terrible to watch, said Cliff Duvall, commonwealth attorney for Lewis and Greenup counties.

“I see them come through court. It emaciates and kills them,” Duvall said.

Duvall is prosecuting two cases against doctors accused of misprescribing painkillers. One is Williams and the other is Dr. Rodolpho Santos of Greenup County. According to an investigation by the Kentucky State Medical Licensure Board, six patients of Santos died from a drug overdose on OxyContin. The attorney general’s office claims Williams wrote 46,160 prescriptions in 101 days. The AG’s office also said another 25,000 prescriptions were filled in Ohio.

While there is a push to prosecute doctors, Lewis said investigations into prescription drug abuse are time consuming and costly. The investigation into Fortune Williams lasted eight months before his medical license was revoked in October 2001. The case was then prolonged when Williams absconded to Jamaica three months ago.

The lack of funding and staff for such investigations may be a reason why illegal prescription drug use abounds in small, eastern Kentucky towns, Lewis said.

“It would require quite a bit of funds to infiltrate these local agencies. That is where the problems are,” Lewis said.

Area law enforcement officials are not the only people dealing with prescription drug addictions. Every time authorities close a clinic or a doctor’s office for suspicion of writing illegal prescriptions, other doctors see an influx of these patients addicted to painkillers, said Bonnie Jett, a social worker at Meadowview Regional Medical Center.

Jett works to place drug abusers into rehabilitation programs in surrounding communities. Since the police crackdown on prescription drug abusers, Jett said area doctors have become adept at spotting addicts.

“They had to get better when other clinics were shut down,” Jett said. “They knew those patients were coming. Those people had to go somewhere.”

People addicted to painkillers mostly aren’t deviants, but people who started out with a genuine need for the drug, Jett said.

“Most people who have a narcotic addiction actually started with a legitimate injury and were never able to come off the drug,” Jett said.

Warning signs that someone is addicted to prescription painkillers include pills stored in unmarked bottles, Jett said. Physical signs are a general nervousness and anxiety, coupled with a lack of sleep and nourishment, said Lynda Skaggs, critical care manager of the ICU emergency department at MRMC.

“I think it is like anything else that can be abused,” Skaggs said. “People can get so addicted, they are wiped out.”

She said Meadowview sees an increase in overdoses on prescription medication around holidays. Skaggs speculated people get more depressed then and turn to medication to dull the pain.

Since the problem is increasing, Duvall said he is focusing a lot of energy into keeping corrupt doctors off the streets. Distinguishing which doctor is crooked and which is not is easier said than done, Duvall said.

“We want to get the bad doctors in that are doing this, but we certainly don’t want to cut off a patient who legitimately needs pain medication,” Duvall said.

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