A longtime Tri-Cities, Washington doctor was sentenced Thursday to four years in prison for her role in a “pill mill” based in her Richland medical office.
Dr. Janet Arnold owned Desert Wind Family Practice on Wellsian Way in Richland, where she hired addicts and then gave them blank prescription scripts she had signed until her office was raided by Drug Enforcement Administration agents.
“Defendant, despite being a licensed medical provider, was acting as nothing more than a drug dealer in a white coat,” said George Jacobs III, assistant US attorney, in a court document.
Arnold’s receptionist / office manager would fill out prescription orders for highly addictive drugs, including fentanyl and oxycodone, both for fake patients and also for Arnold’s patients on the frequent days when she didn’t come to work.
Sometimes the receptionist would increase the dosage or amount of pills for patients that Arnold had previously seen, with Arnold not necessarily knowing for which patients or what drugs the prescriptions were being written.
She pre-signed hundreds of blank prescription scripts, sometimes meeting her staff at a pizza restaurant or one of their homes, when they told her they needed more.
Arnold pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. But her attorneys argued that she was manipulated by others, including her office manager, who was an addict and drug dealer, according to court documents.
Arnold was not fully aware of the scope and extent of the actions of her co-defendants in the case, including her office manager and a volunteer in her office, her attorneys argued.
She was “willfully blind” to the drug dealing with her prescription scripts, rather than “willfully participating,” said her attorney Paul Shelton.
Doctor flaunted rules
But US District Court Senior Judge Edward Shea said Arnold’s actions were calculated and that she was no “unknowing dupe.”
He was baffled by why she had a Washington state license to practice as a physician before her practice was raided in 2017, Shea said.
In 2004 she had been accused of prescribing large quantities of narcotics to patients, including 500 to 750 tablets of oxycodone at once to one patient. Her license was suspended from 2006 to late 2007 before she successfully applied for reinstatement, convincing the licensing board she had reformed, Shea said.
Arnold’s license was suspended again shortly after the May 2017 DEA raid of Desert Winds Family Practice and then permanently revoked.
Arnold has never confronted her culpability in the distribution of narcotics, instead blaming her office manager and minimizing her role, Shea said.
It was no surprise that she hired addicts and then they acted like addicts, he said.
He also pointed to testimony that the man she lived with for 21 years had also handed out prescriptions to patients and worn a white coat in the office as if he were a medical professional, which he was not.
That was a clear indication she flaunts rules, he said.
Her actions added to the tragedy of fentanyl addiction in the Tri-Cities community, and required time in prison, the judge said.
He also sentenced her to three years supervised release, but issued no fine, saying she had no money to pay it.
Prescriptions for undercover witness
He also was influenced by the “damning” testimony of a medical expert witness, Dr. Leslie Enzian.
She said the practice of signing blank prescription scripts was illegal and also reviewed the treatment of a cooperative witness in the case.
The witness posed as a patient and told Arnold she needed oxycodone for headaches.
Arnold did not check a state database to see the new patient’s past opioid use or speak with her past doctor.
Arnold initially prescribed an average of 15 mg of oxycodone a day but a year later had increased that to 80 mg a day and had also provided early refills when the undercover patient said she ran out, according to DEA special agent Jason Sherrell.
There was no legitimate medical reason to prescribe that quantity and dosage for headache treatment, Jacobs said.
Arnold’s attorneys asked Shea to sentence her to five years probation, including up to two years of home confinement, rather than prison time.
Arnold, 64, has no previous criminal history and cannot repeat her crime without a medical license, they said.
She provides full-time care to her disabled partner. If she goes to prison he would likely end up in assisted living or a nursing home, Arnold told the judge.
Her partner, who came to court in a motorized wheelchair, told the judge he had previously been sexually molested in a care home and would live on the streets instead.
Arnold said when she opened Desert Winds Family Practice she wanted to treat patients in chronic pain.
Doctor claims ignorance
But then Danielle C. Mata, a patient, convinced Arnold to hire her as an office manager, and Mata recruiting drug addicts and telling them what to say to get pain medicine, Arnold said.
“I had no idea Danielle and her cronies were selling drugs on the street,” she said. She also did not realize she could be criminally prosecuted, she said.
After losing her medical license and practice, she and her partner became homeless for a time and now have no car and depend on a food bank, she said.
The prosecution had asked for a nine-year prison sentence for Arnold.
After taking an oath to do no harm as a doctor, she was instrumental in leading several people to become addicted to her prescriptions and contributed to the epidemic of opioid abuse in Washington state, according to court documents.
“Her status as a well-educated, white-collar offender does not warrant any leniency given the circumstances of the case,” the prosecution argued in court documents.
They called for doctors to be “sent a strong and clear message that hiding behind their prescription pads and blaming the addicts for this epidemic will not be tolerated.”
Mata, of Richland, and another patient who volunteered in Arnold’s medical practice, Jennifer C. Prichard of Prosser said Arnold was an addict, during the sentencing hearing.
Arnold drank alcohol at her medical office and used fentanyl patches, they said. Over time she came into her office less and less, leaving her nonmedical staff to deal with patients, they said.
Her practice was “chaotic and discombobulated,” Prichard said.
When power to her office was cut off because the electric bill was not paid, she told patients to go to Mata’s house to get their prescriptions and had a patient deliver a printer there.
Court documents show that from March 2016 to May 2017, about 487 “prescriptions” with Dr. Arnold’s signature and DEA registration number were issued and filled.
The prescriptions distributing about 2,000 fentanyl patches; 27,000 oxycodone pills; 6,600 methadone pills; 2,000 hydromorphone pills; 600 oxymorphone pills; 1,700 methylphenidate pills; 2,000 amphetamine mixture pills; and 7,000 carisoprodol pills.
2 opioid dealers in prison
Of Arnold’s four co-defendants, two have been sentenced to prison.
David Barnes Nay, 42, and Lisa Marie Cooper, 55, both of Prosser, distributed the opioid medications obtained with Arnold’s prescriptions to other people or kept the drugs to feed their own addictions.
Nay pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute eight controlled substances, and six counts of distributing fentanyl and oxycodone. He was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison, followed by five years of supervised release.
Cooper was sentenced to two years in prison for conspiracy to distribute and possess and two counts of distributing controlled substances.
Prichard, 46, and Mata, 44, are awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to similar charges in the conspiracy.