By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
SEATTLE — An Everett doctor who handed out more than six times as many highly addictive painkillers as the community’s largest hospital was sentenced on Friday to three years in federal prison.
Delbert Lee Whetstone, an osteopath who operated a pain management clinic on Evergreen Way, also agreed to forfeit more than $1.2 million that federal agents seized during their investigation.
Whetstone earlier this year pleaded guilty to federal crimes related to hiding money from the IRS and prescribing controlled substances without a legitimate medical purpose.
“I see a person who didn’t care about collateral damage to the community. You distributed a huge amount of drugs for cash. I think the community was harmed by your practice of medicine. This sentence sends a message that this is wrong and will be taken seriously by this court,” U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik said Friday.
Whetstone’s attorney disputed how prosecutors have characterized what was going on at Whetstone’s clinic.
“This is not a case of a callous pill distribution factory, but one of a well-intended, skilled physician not taking the precautions necessary to screen out a small group of addicts who lied about non-existing medical conditions and pain,” attorney Peter Mair wrote in court papers.
Mair submitted several letters from former patients, including a war veteran and nurse, who wrote that Whetstone listened to them when other doctors wouldn’t and helped improve their quality of life after years of suffering. One person wrote that Whetstone only prescribed pain medication as a last resort.
Federal prosecutors accused Whetstone, 60, of repeatedly prescribing OxyContin without medical justification and then hiding the cash profits “from his lucrative but largely illicit practice” from the Internal Revenue Service.
Investigators say Whetstone prescribed nearly 88,000 pills of 80 mg OxyContin — the dosage most likely to be abused — in 10 months in 2009. In comparison, officials with Providence Regional Medical Center Everett ordered 13,400 of the tablets, according to court papers.
“What the defendant did in this case did not amount to simply a good faith disagreement about a proper course of medical treatment including prescription opiates. The evidence shows that the defendant completely abdicated his trusted role as a medical provider and became a drug dealer as surely as the dealers on street corners,” Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mark Parrent and Richard Cohen wrote.
Whetstone also was accused of structuring bank transactions to avoid financial reporting requirements.
A structuring scheme involves splitting cash transactions that exceed $10,000 into smaller amounts in an effort to avoid reporting requirements. A federal agent working the case said such banking transactions often are seen among drug traffickers, according to court papers.
Federal agents began looking into Whetstone’s prescribing practices after several drug dealers were arrested with prescription medication bottles bearing the Everett doctor’s name. Investigators sent a test patient into the clinic. The man wore a secret recording device.
Whetstone prescribed the patient OxyContin without a physical examination although he wrote in the patient’s chart that he’d examined the man. The patient was able to get the prescription renewed after visits that lasted about a minute.
Prosecutors pointed out that with appropriate and careful medical supervision, OxyContin can “vastly improve the quality of life of patients suffering from extreme pain.” The drugs also can lead to addiction and dangerous overdoses, the prosecutors said.
“In this case, the defendant, a physician, knew far better than the typical drug dealer the dangers of the substances he was so cavalierly distributing,” Parrent and Cohen wrote.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.