CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A former doctor will spend six months behind bars after a federal judge concluded Tuesday that she aided the flood of prescription pain pills in southern West Virginia, a region that ranks among the worst in the nation for drug overdose deaths.
U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. rejected a request for probation from the defense lawyer for Diane Shafer, saying the punishment fell within sentencing guidelines and would serve as a deterrent to such conduct.
Defense lawyer Dwane Tinsley had asked the judge to allow Shafer to remain at her Mingo County home, where she cares for her frail 81-year-old mother. Tinsley also cited the letter in which Shafer expressed "true remorse" for her crime.
"I'm sorry from the bottom of my heart," Shafer told Copenhaver during the hearing, her voice trembling. "My heart is broken and my spirit is crushed. I am sorry about this."
Copenhaver said Shafer was West Virginia's 10th most-prolific prescriber of controlled substances during the time period scrutinized by prosecutors, surpassing a number of hospitals in the process. Prosecutors say the 60-year-old Shafter left signed prescription slips at her Williamson office for staff to hand out in her absence. They counted more than 118,000 prescriptions for pain and anti-anxiety drugs issued in her name between 2003 and early 2010.
Shafer pleaded guilty to conspiring to misuse a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration registration number. But Tinsley said the crime occurred as Shafer worked long hours as the sole orthopedic surgeon in a 10-county area. Shafer hired staff "off the street" and with little training as she sought to serve a region with sparse health care coverage, Tinsley told the judge.
"In retrospect, your honor, she should have been more responsible in the way she ran her medical practice," Tinsley said. He added, "She was more concerned about her patients than the running of her office."
Shafer also performed a lot of charity care, Tinsley said. He cited letters from the community urging mercy from the court, as well as an analysis commissioned by her defense that found a sampling of her patients reported her seeing them personally during exams.
But Copenhaver said Shafer's crime amounted to more than an administrative lapse. He said would-be patients often stood in long lines on the sidewalk outside Shafer's office awaiting brief exams that would lead to pill prescriptions. These people would pay $150 to $200 for initial visits, and $75 for return trips, the judge said, referring to allegations from investigators.
"This was part of the pill mill syndrome that's been visited upon Mingo County," the judge told Shafer, adding that "You helped flood the area with prescriptions."
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Frail declined to weigh in on Shafer's sentence. As part of her plea agreement, Shafer has promised never to re-apply for the DEA registration she surrendered. Shafer's West Virginia medical license expired in late 2009, according to that board's records. She is no longer listed as active in Kentucky, where she has also practiced.
Shafer had run afoul of authorities previously. Earlier ethics allegations also targeted her prescription practices as well as her handling of workers' compensation cases. Shafer secretly married the Kentucky official who presided over and later dismissed one of those ethics cases, while also giving him $42,500. Her subsequent 1993 bribery conviction was later overturned.
Shafer pleaded guilty shortly after losing the GOP primary for a House of Delegates seat. She also sought to represent the state party at the Republican National Convention in that election, without success. A former Republican State Executive Committee member, Shafer had been a top individual donor to the West Virginia party last decade. She switched to Republican after repeated failed runs for the Legislature as a Democrat.