A Nevada cardiologist charged with widespread opioid and health care fraud pleaded guilty on Nov. 26 to one charge of illegal distribution of a controlled substance, federal authorities announced.
Dr. Devendra Patel, 59, was the first physician in the state to face criminal drug distribution charges under a federal push to clamp down on opioid “pill mill” clinics and the doctors who run them. The government has stepped up efforts to beat back the rising tide of opioid addiction and death, which former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the “worst drug crisis in American history.”
Dr. Patel, who ran the Dr. Patel Medical Clinic in Elko, was indicted in December 2017 on 39 charges, including 36 charges of controlled substances and three charges of health care fraud. He faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million when he’s sentenced by a Nevada federal court March 18.
The government’s investigation revealed that Dr. Patel contributed to the opioid epidemic by unlawfully prescribing opioid painkillers and other prescription narcotics to patients strictly for financial gain.
As part of his plea, Dr. Patel admitted that he prescribed oxycodone and hydrocodone — often sold as OxyContin and Norco respectively, in addition to fentanyl — to patients who had no legitimate medical need for the drugs. These illegal practices “allowed him to see a high volume of patients and easily prescribe and sell the opioids, while not addressing any legitimate medical concerns of his patients,” according to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Nevada’s Nov. 26 announcement.
Federal prosecutors alleged that Dr. Patel’s illegal opioid practices spanned from May 2014 to September 2017.
In addition to opioid prescription fraud, Dr. Patel also faces charges of health care fraud for performing EKGs on his patients so he could then order nuclear stress tests, which he never administered. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Dr. Patel allegedly used a poorly calibrated machine and presented patients with fraudulent x-rays to trick patients into thinking that they had heart issues that he needed to treat. Dr. Patel then billed Medicare and Medicaid for the fake tests, the Justice Department alleged.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 115 Americans die every day of an opioid-related overdose – about one every nine minutes. In 2016, there were 408 opioid-related deaths in Nevada, and the state ranked as the sixth for the highest number of opioid milligrams distributed per adult.