New York City doctor, Dr. Stan Li, is embroiled in a trial related to patients’ drug overdose deaths. The physician is on trial and facing manslaughter charges stemming from accusations that Li sold painkiller prescriptions to two patients who subsequently died from overdoses, according to New York City officials. This manslaughter case is the first in New York against a doctor in an overdose death and it highlights the concerted efforts of criminal prosecutions against physicians to curtail the continued problems that arise from painkiller abuse.
The trial commenced with opening statements on Wednesday in Dr. Li’s case. According to prosecutors, one patient died of an overdose that resulted from the lethal combination of painkillers and anti-anxiety medications prescribed to him by Li, despite telling the doctor he was using the drugs at dosages beyond that prescribed. While a second patient was prescribed dozens of pills three times over a five-week period before he ultimately overdosed and died. Moreover, a third patient overdosed five times but survived and continued to receive prescriptions from Dr. Li.
Another wrinkle to the case of the New York City doctor embroiled in a trial related to patients’ drug overdose deaths is that Dr. Li also prescribed to a man who killed four people while robbing a Long Island pharmacy to procure more pills to feed his habit. Authorities claim that the pain doctor ignored warning signs so he could continue to cash in on selling prescriptions to addicts. Prosecutors contend Li saw up to 90 patients a day in a weekend storefront clinic that charged on a per-prescription scale.
Li’s attorney, Raymond Belair, has attempted to paint a different picture of his client that of a conscientious physician who tried to alleviate chronic pain only to end up on the wrong side of the law and arrested because patients misled him and misused medications without his knowledge. Additionally, Li’s lawyer stressed that the New Jersey-based doctor acted properly and argued that doctors are not trained to be police officers or detectives and cannot be expected to patrol their patients. Moreover, the defense claimed Li wasn’t enabling addiction but rather treating people who often had become physically dependent on pain medications and he had also employed measures to combat the potential risk of painkiller addiction, such as reducing the dosages other doctors had prescribed and issuing narcotics protocols obliging patients to manage the medications as ordered and Li claimed to have stopped treating patients who didn’t comply.
Due to rising incidences of painkiller abuse and overdose deaths, law enforcement officials around the country have used criminal laws to pursue doctors suspected of mishandling patient medication allotments and malpractice. However, it is rare to see physicians charged with manslaughter or murder offenses. A notable exemption would include former cardiologist Conrad Murray, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the Michael Jackson case in 2009, when he was found to have administered a lethal dose of the anesthetic propofol to him under the guise of a sleep aid. It is unclear how many similar cases are currently pending in federal courts over the 50 states. Nonetheless, a 2008 study in the medical journal Pain Medicine suggested that approximately 335 similar cases were pending nationwide between 1998 and 2006.
The case of the New York City doctor embroiled in a trial related to patients’ drug overdose deaths could potentially set a new standard in the prosecution of similar cases. Two other cases set to begin trial proceedings include the case of an Iowa physician facing manslaughter charges and implicated in the overdose deaths of numerous patients, as well as a case in Oklahoma of a former physician who was charged in early 2014 with murder in connection to nine deaths, which include eight overdose deaths and one death that resulted from an accident caused by one of his patients. Authorities contend they limit criminal charges to only against serious offenders. However, there is debate over whether such cases compromise the prescribing of needed medications or disproportionately punish doctors who get deceived by addicts. In addition to manslaughter charges in two deaths, Li faces multiple charges of reckless endangerment related to two other deaths and several other patients who survived, as well as multiple charges of selling prescriptions to patients who have subsequently overdosed and/or harmed others as the result of accidents under the influence or during the commission of a crime.
By Leigh Haugh