The highly-publicized trial of two well-known pain doctors in Mobile accused of illegally prescribing pain medications and conspiring to commit healthcare fraud began on Thursday with opening statements.
Dr. John Patrick Couch and Dr. Xiulu Ruan sat amidst a large team of defense attorneys hoping to prove to the jurors that there isn’t enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the doctors acted illegally and that these were “good doctors practicing good medicine,” in the words of Defense Attorney Dennis Knizley.
Federal Prosecutor Christopher Bodnar began his opening statements by telling the jury that by the end of the trial he believed the evidence will prove the doctors prescribed narcotics outside of the legal parameters of professional practice.
Bodnar claimed Pain Physicians Specialists of Alabama was not a “typical Pill mill” in the textbook definition of the term because patients needed insurance and the clinic wouldn’t accept cash payments, but that didn’t make their actions any less illegal.
“A lot of patients who came in here were legitimate with legitimate pain. No question about that,” Bodnar said. “We’re not here because of that. We’re here for the times they were prescribing drugs outside of the legitimate course of professional practice.”
Bodnar said the doctors were running a “money mill.
“In the same way you go hunting, you can use a rifle or you can use a missile. They both accomplish the same thing, but there’s a wrong way to do it and the right way,” Bodnar said about the highly potent and expensive narcotics being described.
Knizley, representing Dr. Ruan, said this was the first he had ever heard the government referred to the clinic as anything, but “essentially a pill mill.”
” I think they’re backing off the characteristics they’ve said in the past,” Knizley said in an interview later that evening. “There were no qualifications in the indictment. It said in essence, this was a pill mill. That’s what was given to you[the media] and that’s what you put in your newcasts, because that’s what you were told. Well, today you were told a little something different.”
He and Attorney Jack Sharman, representing Dr. Couch, reminded the jury that the doctors are innocent and until proven otherwise.
Sharman claimed the feds “want to turn the two-way street between a doctor’s judgement and a patients decision on what to do with that into a crime.” Sharman told the jurors, he believed some of the government witnesses will lie on the stand and described an encounter where an undercover DEA agent lied to Dr. Couch about his identity and health conditions in order to lure the physician into prescribing narcotics while being recorded on a hidden body camera.
“You’re probably only going to hear reference to a few dozen out of the thousands of patients at PPSA,” Sharman told the jury.” You’ll hear the attorneys talk a lot about the dangers of opiate addiction. What you won’t hear about are the hardships for people with chronic pain, which is what Dr. Couch was trying to alleviate.
“This is not about the U.S. telling doctors how to practice medicine,” Bodnar said. “What we’re talking about here is illegally prescribing medicine.”
The potential two-month long trial will be chalked full of dozens of witnesses on both sides of the case from medical experts, to drug company execs to former patients and employees.