Last month a federal judge sentenced Rosa Martinez, a physician in Yakima, Washington, to a year's probation and a $1,000 fine for Medicare and Medicaid fraud. The fraud occurred when a physician's assistant in Martinez's practice mistakenly charged the government for her services at the physician's rate, which is allowed only when the supervising physician is present, which Martinez wasn't. She said she was unaware of the rule but accepted responsibility for the errors because they occurred on her watch. The overcharges totaled $22. No, that's not a typo. "Clearly," U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle said, "this is not any type of overt crime." Noting Martinez's dedication to her patients and her reputation for high-quality pro bono work, Van Sickle declined the prosecution's request to impose community service as part of her sentence, saying, "The kind of work you do is such that imposing some form of community service would not make sense."
This pathetic outcome is all that is left of a federal prosecution that threatened Martinez with up to 20 years in federal prison, portraying her as a taxpayer-bilking drug pusher. The case, launched three years ago by U.S. Attorney James A. McDevitt, stemmed from Martinez's willingness to treat people with histories of illegal drug use for pain, a practice that is not only legal but ethically required. In 2007 a jury acquitted her of prescribing narcotics outside the scope of medicine, failed to reach verdicts on related charges of unlawfully distributing narcotics, and convicted her on eight felony counts of health care fraud. After the trial, Judge Van Sickle dismissed the distribution charges and ordered a new trial on the fraud charges. The Yakima Herald-Republic reports that a medical billing expert hired by Martinez's lawyer "concluded that the convictions were based on misrepresentations by government auditors." According to the lawyer, "it gutted the prosecution's case," which is why McDevitt agreed to a plea bargain instead of retrying Martinez. As for Martinez, she wanted to keep fighting, but she "had run out of money" and assets, having "lost her home in the process of defending herself against the charges."
Keep this case in mind the next time you read about an alleged "pill mill" operator who faces a daunting list of charges that cast every aspect of his practice in a sinister light. More on drug control vs. pain control here.
[Thanks to the Pain Relief Network's Siobhan Renolds for the tip.]