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News of the Day ... In Perspective

7/21/2007

Dr. Hurwitz sentenced to nearly 5 years

Dr. William Hurwitz of McLean, VA, a prominent specialist in pain management, had been sentenced to 25 years imprisonment after a 2004 conviction for drug trafficking—virtually a life sentence for a man nearly 60 years of age. In a rare action, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, ruling that a judge had improperly barred the jury from considering whether Hurwitz was acting in good faith.

At his April re-trial, a different judge was assigned to the case, and many of the most serious charges were thrown out.

Judge Leonie Brinkema said that when reading news accounts of the prior trial, she had thought that the quantities of opioids prescribed by Dr. Hurwitz were “absolutely crazy.” But after hearing testimony from both sides, she concluded that the prescription of large quantities means nothing (AP 7/13/07).

“Counting pills is a prosecutor’s trick,” writes John Tierney, “not a proper gauge of medical practice.”

At a news conference following the first trial, Drug Enforcement Administration head Karen Tandy held up a plastic bag containing 1,600 pills, announcing that Hurwitz had prescribed that dose for a single day, making it “immediately apparent” to her that he was not a legitimate doctor. The prosecution tried the same strategy at the second trial. It turned out that the scary number was a one-time clerical error that occurred when the pharmacy had run out of the usual dose and a lower dosage form had to be substituted. The patient never took the wrong dosage; his mother wrote a letter praising Dr. Hurwitz for his treatment of her son.

Tierney notes that jurors were expected to render verdicts on the equivalent of 19 different malpractice cases involving two of the most controversial fields in medicine: pain and addiction. Several told him that they hoped Hurwitz would be sentenced to the 2.5 years already served. They were appalled to learn that this was longer than the sentences received by some of the patients who were caught reselling the drugs.

The message to doctors, Tierney concluded is: “Be afraid” (NY Times 7/3/07).

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