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More medical professionals plead guilty in Montgomery pill mill case

A prescription bottle of white pills spilling on a pile of $100 dollar bills

During the past few weeks, three more health care providers have pleaded guilty in the ongoing “pill mill” prosecution arising out of a now-closed Montgomery medical office.

United States Attorney Louis Franklin announced the guilty pleas on Monday. That medical practice was known as “Family Practice” and was located in Montgomery.

In November of last year, the practice’s owner, Dr. Gilberto Sanchez, pleaded guilty to drug distribution, health care fraud, and money laundering charges. This month’s guilty pleas bring the total number of guilty pleas in this case to eight.

Last Friday, Dr. Julio Delgado, 56, of Homewood, Alabama, pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the fraudulent acquisition of controlled substances.

Delgado worked for Sanchez at Family Practice during 2015 and 2016. During that time, Dr. Delgado saw some of Dr. Sanchez’s patients when Sanchez was too busy. In open court on May 11th, Delgado admitted to writing a prescription for someone who was never his patient and without ever examining the person.

On Monday, April 23, 2018, Elizabeth Cronier, 70, of Montgomery, Alabama, also pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting the fraudulent acquisition of controlled substances. Court documents show that Cronier was a certified registered nurse practitioner and that she worked for Sanchez at Family Practice from 2016 to 2017. In her guilty plea, Cronier admitted to aiding and abetting a patient in obtaining a fraudulent prescription for buprenorphine.

On Monday, April 30, 2018, Stephanie Michelle Ott, 42, of Fairhope, Alabama pleaded guilty to conspiring to make false statements related to health care matters. The charging document states that Ott, a registered nurse, worked for Sanchez during 2015 and 2016, serving as a practice management consultant.

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Through her work, Ott helped to implement a new medical billing system for the practice. Ott did so knowing that the system she was implementing would cause the practice to report medical services provided by nurse practitioners as though physicians had provided the services. By doing so, the practice collected 15 percent more for each service than it would have had it accurately reported the qualifications of the healthcare providers.

Sentencing hearings will be scheduled over the next several months.

Delgado and Cronier will face maximum sentences of four years in prison, as well as substantial monetary penalties.

Ott will face a maximum sentence of five years in prison, along with the monetary penalties.

The five defendants who pleaded guilty previously are: Dr. Sanchez; Dr. Sanchez’s former partner, Dr. Shepherd A. Odom, who pleaded guilty to drug distribution and money laundering charges; nurse practitioner Steven Cox, who pleaded guilty to drug distribution and health care fraud charges; Misty Fannin, the practice’s former office manager, who pleaded guilty to money laundering; and Farley Pugh, another former office manager, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to make false statements related to health care matters.

If you received medical care from the Family Practice, particularly ongoing painkillers it might be wise to get a second opinion.

This case was investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Tactical Diversion Squad, the Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigation Division, and the Department of Health and Human Services – Office of Inspector General. The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office, the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, the Montgomery Police Department, and the Opelika Police Department all assisted in the investigation.

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Assistant United States Attorneys Jonathan S. Ross and R. Rand Neeley are prosecuting the case.

Currently, under Alabama law, Doctors and pharmacists who overprescribe pain medications cannot be prosecuted. In the last legislative session, the House passed legislation that would have brought Alabama in line with most other states and allow district attorneys to prosecute doctors who abuse their prescription powers. That legislation was defeated in the Senate and is opposed by the powerful Alabama Medical Association. State Representative Christopher John England, D-Tuscaloosa, who sponsored the 2018 bill promises to bring that bill back in 2019 if he is re-elected.  They can, however, be prosecuted under federal law.

Over 60,000 Americans died last year from drug overdoses, many of them became drug dependent because their doctors wrongly prescribed them highly addictive opioids. Alabama has more active prescriptions for opioids than it has citizens, the highest rate of opioid prescriptions in the world.

Brandon Moseley is a former reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter.

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