(CBS/AP) COLUMBUS, Ohio - Chicago doctor Paul Volkman, accused of running a pill mill in an Appalachian county where painkillers are a public-health scourge, was convicted Monday of illegal distribution and causing the death of four patients.
Volkman, 64, faces 20 years in prison in those four deaths, as well as eight other distribution counts that prosecutors said resulted in fatal overdoses but did not leave enough evidence to convict him of the deaths.
In the four deaths for which he was found guilty, Volkman was convicted of illegally prescribing Oxycodone, a powerful painkiller that has been blamed for overdose deaths around the country and has become a substitute for heroin in many places.
The Drug Enforcement Administration considers Scioto County, where Volkman distributed the pills, one of the worst places for prescription painkiller abuse. Accidental drug overdoses driven by such addictions have surpassed car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio.
"The jury's verdict brings a measure of justice and closure to the victims' families," U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart said.
The verdict comes as Ohio lawmakers prepare to approve legislation that would require stricter regulation of clinics, often dubbed pill mills, for the practice of providing drugs-on-demand to patients who get only cursory examinations.
The four patients whose deaths Volkman was convicted of causing were Kristi Ross, who died March 9, 2004; Steven Heineman, who died April 29, 2005; Bryan Brigner, who died Oct. 2, 2005; and Earnest Ratliff, who died Oct. 29, 2005.
A 2007 indictment alleged Volkman went to work at the Tri-State Health Care and Pain Management clinic in Portsmouth, an Ohio River town, in 2003. The clinic was operated by a mother and daughter who have since pleaded guilty to one count of operating Tri-State as a
place whose primary purpose was the illegal distribution of prescription drugs.
The indictment said patients came from hundreds of miles away and were charged $125 to $200 in cash for visits to see a doctor. Prosecutors said Volkman rarely, if ever, counseled patients on alternative treatments for pain, such as physical therapy, surgery or addiction counseling. Volkman denied the allegations and said he always acted in good faith.
More than 1,300 people died from accidental drug overdoses in 2009 in Ohio, according to the most recent data from the Ohio Department of Health. The number of fatal overdoses has more than quadrupled from 1999, when the state recorded 327 accidental deaths, according to the department.