Northern Virginia pain management specialist Dr. William Hurwitz went on trial in Alexandria Wednesday in a prosecution that could be a landmark in the DEA's war on pain doctors and patients. He is charged in a 62-count indictment with leading a conspiracy to traffic in pain medications and resulting in the deaths of at least three patients.
The formal charges include drug trafficking resulting in death and serious bodily injury, conspiracy to traffic in controlled substances and health care fraud. Prosecutors, who have publicly likened the nationally-known pain specialist to "a street-corner crack dealer," say he prescribed excessive quantities of narcotic pain relievers to patients who then sold them on the black market. The excessive doses were also responsible for patient deaths and injuries, prosecutors alleged.
But in a case that has become a focal point in the struggle by pain patients and their advocates, Hurwitz supporters say prosecutors and the DEA are intruding on the legitimate practice of medicine, with patients left out in the cold. "This is a trophy case. They wanted a doctor," Hurwitz attorney Marvin D. Miller told the Washington Post. "Doctors should decide what is appropriate medical practice, not people in law enforcement."
"Because the DEA managed to arrest some of his patients and compel them to testify against him, Dr. Hurwitz is facing a life sentence," wrote Siobhan Reynolds, president of the pain patients' advocacy group the Pain Relief Network (http://www.painreliefnetwork.org). "The US Department of Justice is fully aware that Dr. Hurwitz did not intend to deal drugs. But that doesn't matter. They are trying to sell their 'drug diversion' story to Congress as a way to continue funding for their failed drug war," she told supporters.
In recent years, state and federal prosecutors and state medical boards have prosecuted dozens of doctors and administratively punished hundreds more for alleged violations of pain prescription protocols, but those doctors generally appear to have been operating within the bounds of legitimate medical practice.
With a high-powered legal team ready to rebut prosecution attempts to impose its version of acceptable medical practices on the profession and with supporters gathering and ready to make noise in Northern Virginia, the Hurwitz trial could -- and should -- force the national media to finally confront the issues of pain treatment and harassment of pain doctors head on.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks. Hurwitz, who is free on a $2 million bond, faces life in prison.
DRCNet will report in greater depth in the coming weeks on the Hurwitz trial, including discussion of both the defense's and prosecution's cases.