2 Western Pa. doctors found not guilty of alleged Suboxone scheme
Two Allegheny County doctors are not guilty of illegally prescribing medication used to treat addiction to narcotic painkillers, a West Virginia jury found Thursday.
Dr. Krishan Kumar Aggarwal, 75, of Moon Township, and Dr. Cherian John, 66, of Coraopolis, were acquitted on all charges of health care fraud, conspiracy and unlawfully distributing Suboxone.
Jurors deliberated for nearly eight hours following a nine-day trial before U.S. District Judge Frederick P. Stamp Jr. in Wheeling.
They acquitted Aggarwal of eight counts related to the alleged Suboxone scheme, and John was acquitted of six counts.
“For the past year, Dr. John has been fighting these false charges from the government stemming from his treatment of patients who suffered from opioid addiction. But Dr. John was always one of the good guys in the war on opioids, as we proved in this trial,” said Stephen Stallings, the Downtown Pittsburgh-based attorney who represented John.
“We will be waiting for the government’s apology, and we hope this verdict sends a strong message to the government not to target innocent doctors based on false testimony.”
West Virginia attorney Mike Nogay, who represented Aggarwal, said that for both men “to be found not guilty is vindication for the work they did.”
“Dr. Aggarwal was very concerned about the opiate crisis in our area, and he treated it,” Nogay said. A relative of Aggarwal’s died of an opioid overdose in India, and the loss fueled his desire to help others struggling to kick addictions, Nogay said.
Lawyers claim pressure to get convictions
The exonerated men’s attorneys say the two physicians were wrongfully targeted as pressure mounts for federal prosecutors to produce convictions related to the nation’s opioid abuse epidemic.
“The Department of Justice in Washington was hungry to show statistics, and they became too overzealous in seeking indictments,” Stallings said.
Officials with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of West Virginia could not be reached late Thursday.
Last summer, Aggarwal and John were among five doctors indicted by the Department of Justice related to their ties to Redirections Treatment Advocates LLC. In the May 3, 2018 news release announcing the charges, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions lauded the work of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit he created to use data to target opioid-related health care fraud.
Redirections operated five clinics that dispensed Suboxone in Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, including in Washington County.
Suboxone is a combination naloxone and buprenorphine that typically is prescribed in pill form to treat opioid addiction, including by lessening cravings and overcoming withdrawal symptoms. But Suboxone also contains opioids and can be abused or cause dangerous side effects, especially when combined with alcohol.
“There is somewhat of a street market for Suboxone, but mostly it’s used by genuine drug addicts who begin going through withdrawals,” Stallings said.
Both Aggarwal and John were affiliated with the Weirton Medical Center, and only worked with the Redirections clinic a couple days a week.
“At this particular clinic, there was zero evidence of diversion actually going on,” Stallings said.
Stallings, a former federal prosecutor, said that while working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami, “we prosecuted real drug dealers — cartels and everything.”
“What happens is this Department of Justice in Washington puts tremendous pressure on the U.S. Attorney’s offices to show actual results in the war on opioids,” he said, “and I just think the government got too aggressive and they weren’t careful enough.”
Doctors Krishan Kumar Aggarwal and John both are eager to get back to work practicing medicine, their attorneys said.
Others plead guilty
Not everyone with ties to Redirections has been found innocent.
The Suboxone clinic’s founder and owner, Jennifer Hess, pleaded guilty last month to helping illegally peddle drugs, including by using pre-signed prescriptions and forging doctor’s signatures to distribute buprenorphine.
She also pleaded guilty to health care fraud, because she submitted claims to Medicare and Medicaid to cover the costs of the unlawfully prescribed drugs. Hess is set to be sentenced on Oct. 30.
Also indicted were Dr. Madhu Aggarwal, who resided in Moon Township and worked in Bridgeville, whose case is pending; Dr. Michael Bummer, who lived in Sewickley and worked in Washington; Dr. Parth Bharill of Pittsburgh who worked in Morgantown; and employee Christopher Handa.
Handa pleaded guilty last year of submitting illegal prescriptions for more than 18,000 doses of buprenorphine.
Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Natasha at 412-380-8514, [email protected] or via Twitter .