(Reuters) - An Alabama doctor has been sentenced to four years and four months in prison for prescribing hydrocodone, a highly addictive opioid, without a legitimate medical purpose, while her husband, who co-owned her clinic, was sentenced to two and a half years.
Elizabeth Korcz, 48, and Matthew Korcz, 47, had both pleaded guilty last December to conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, and were sentenced Tuesday by U.S. District Judge R. David Proctor in the Northern District of Alabama. The sentences were more lenient than the sentences sought by prosecutors, based on federal guidelines, of nearly six years and more than three years, respectively.
Elizabeth Korcz's attorney, George Beck of Morris, Haynes, said he appreciated the downward departure from the guidelines, but was disappointed that Korcz had not been sentenced to home confinement in light of her serious heart, lung and immune conditions.
"She was not the typical 'pill mill' doctor, but operated a family practice who really cared for her patients," he said.
James Kendrick, a lawyer for Matthew Korcz, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"Doctors who abuse their position of trust to unlawfully prescribe opioids for profit are fueling our country's epidemic," Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicholas McQuaid of the U.S. Justice Department said in a statement. "The devastation to our communities caused by that betrayal of trust requires just punishment, as the court imposed."
In their guilty plea, the two defendants admitted to providing dangerous doses of hydrocodone to patients who were never examined at their clinic, Hoover Alt MD, which also operated an in-house dispensary. The prescriptions were often dispensed while Elizabeth Korcz was absent, and the clinic employed no other medical professionals to conduct exams, according to federal prosecutors.
The case emerged from an investigation by the Justice Department's Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which operates in 10 federal judicial districts. Since its inception in 2018, the strike force has charged more than 85 defendants who are collectively responsible for distributing more than 65 million pills, prosecutors said.
Nationwide litigation over opioids is picking up momentum after a year of delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Trials are underway in West Virginia and California, with another trial expected to begin in New York next month.
More than 3,300 municipal and county governments around the country have brought claims against opioid manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, an epidemic of opioid addiction has led to more than half a million overdose deaths in two decades.
The case is United States v. Korcz, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Alabama, No. 19-cr-00193.
For the government: U.S. Attorney Prim Escalona
For Elizabeth Korcz: George Beck of Morris, Haynes
For Matthew Korcz: James Kendrick
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