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Feature: Pain Doctor William Hurwitz to Get New Trial

In a closely watched case with national implications, a federal appeals court has granted a new trial to a well known Northern Virginia pain doctor sent to federal prison for 25 years as a drug dealer. Pain patient advocates and medical associations praised the ruling in the case of Dr. William Hurwitz, who was convicted in late 2004 of 50 counts in a 62-count indictment, including conspiracy to distribute controlled substances.

Hurwitz appealed his conviction, arguing that trial Judge Leonard Wexler erred by not instructing the jury that Hurwitz should not be convicted if he acted in "good faith." Typically in cases where the quality of medical care is in question, such matters are decided by medical boards or civil courts in the form of malpractice suits. Only doctors who are not prescribing in good faith that they are in line with accepted medical practices face criminal charges. In his jury instructions, Judge Wexler removed Hurwitz' only effective defense.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/hurwitz.jpg
Dr. Hurwitz in 1996 (photo courtesy Skip Baker)
For federal prosecutors, who pointed to multiple examples of high-dose prescriptions Hurwitz had written and who claimed he should have recognized some of his patients to be addicts or dealers, Hurwitz was nothing more than a Dr. Feelgood, no different from -- or perhaps worse than -- the kid slinging crack on the street corner. But for patient advocates and a growing number of medical professionals, the case was the highest-profile example yet of a Justice Department and DEA creating a chilling climate toward doctors' willingness to treat chronic pain with opioid pain medications.

That is why even though even some questioned Hurwitz's prescribing practices, his appeal nevertheless won the support of professional organizations like the American Academy of Pain Medicine, the American Pain Foundation, and the National Pain Foundation, all of which filed briefs in his support. Also joining the fray was the Drug Policy Alliance, which filed its own brief on behalf of pain specialists.

A three-judge panel in the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond agreed with Hurwitz and his allies in its opinion Monday. The panel held that Judge Wexler had erred when he told jurors they could not consider whether Hurwitz had acted in "good faith" when he prescribed large doses of opioid pain relievers like Oxycontin to patients.

"A doctor's good faith in treating his patients is relevant to the jury's determination of whether the doctor acted beyond the bounds of legitimate medical practice," wrote Judge William Traxler. "The district court effectively deprived the jury of the opportunity to consider Hurwitz's defense." That was a fatal error, the panel held. "We cannot say that no reasonable juror could have concluded that Hurwitz's conduct fell within an objectively-defined good-faith standard," wrote Traxler.

"We are very gratified by this decision," said Dr. Jane Orient, executive director of the libertarian-leaning Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, a group that has been in the vanguard of the medical profession on the issue of protecting pain doctors and patients. "Overturning one of these verdicts is something that almost never happens, and we hope it represents a tipping point," she told DRCNet. "We hope that the courts will finally begin to pay attention to the fundamental issues of justice involved here. A doctor is not a drug dealer, and neither is he a policeman. Doctors cannot be held responsible for patient misbehavior."

"I'm delighted," said Dr. Frank Fisher, a California physician originally charged with five counts of murder over his prescribing practices by overzealous prosecutors and state agents, but who was eventually completely exonerated. "This means they will have to let Billy out. The appeals court was absolutely correct in its decision," he told DRCNet.

The appeals court decision is a victory for Hurwitz and his supporters, but it is only one battle in a larger war over who controls the prescribing of pain medications -- the medical profession or the cops -- and in the meantime, doctors and patients are the casualties.

"They are still harassing and investigating doctors," said Orient. "And that in itself can destroy your practice. There are still doctors languishing in prison because they tried to do their best for their patients and there are still patients having difficulty finding physicians willing to do the pain treatment necessary to make them functional instead of bed-ridden suicidal people in severe pain," she said. "More doctors are aware of the extreme risk they take in getting involved with chronic pain patients. The DEA wants them to treat patients like they were suspected criminals."

Fisher pointed to the case of Dr. Richard Heberle, an Ohio physician, of how devastating even defending oneself from such charges can be. "Look at what happened to Dr. Heberle," he said. "He won, but his practice is ruined, his reputation is ruined, his life is ruined. The only thing worse than winning one of these cases is losing one, or maybe coming down with a bad case of chronic pain."

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Hurwitz

You sure have to wonder about the objectivity of all those supporters and what they have to gain (or lose) based on the outcome of his case.

Just the Facts......

Wake up!! The facts alone speak for themselves. Strip any and all arguments that possess the potential for secondary motives and STILL the facts are overwhelming. These cases are purely for the gain of the prosecuting teams/attorneys. Literally and figuratively there is nothing to gain for anyone else. The patient's are hurt, living and dying in a hell of pain and the physician's are removed from the everyday practice of medicine, their skills and good names called into question.

The panel held that Judge

The panel held that Judge Wexler had erred when he told jurors they could not consider whether Hurwitz had acted in "good faith" when he prescribed large doses of opioid pain relievers like Oxycontin to patients. Regaeds Samuel Lozano

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