Doctor shopping is a common way that prescription drugs are diverted for abuse or sale on the street. However, because doctor shopping involves obtaining what are – on the surface – seemingly legitimate prescriptions, many addicts are unaware that this practice is indeed a crime. But because the punishment for this crime can be exceedingly severe, understanding the risks may help people with drug problems get help instead of subverting the medical system under risk of life and liberty.
What is Doctor Shopping?
Doctor shopping is the act of manipulating or deceiving doctors into prescribing medications in order to then divert the drugs for illicit use and sale. Patients generally request prescriptions for powerful narcotics like Oxycontin, Vicodin, Xanax, Valium and many others from multiple doctors. In order to accomplish this, patients often outright lie about symptoms, omit pertinent information on forms and during interviews or doctor/patient meetings, over-dramatize their symptoms, indicate false allergies in order to acquire specific or more potent drugs, injure themselves purposefully, claim to have lost or damaged previous prescriptions and many other types of deception. (1)
It’s unknown exactly how prevalent doctor shopping is in the United States, but based on an increase in cases of doctor shopping being tried in courts as well as a significant increase in the prescription drug abuse problem in the US we can assume the practice is widespread. This is especially true considering that many cases are never discovered or not discovered until the accused party has been abusing the medical system for some time.
According to a Government Accountability Office report released in 2011, around 170,000 Medicare patients were thought to have engaged in doctor shopping in the year 2008. (2) This number is alarming considering that this sample only includes Medicare patients. If we examine the entire population for the year 2011, we see that around 4.02 billion prescriptions were issued. (3) Using Medicare’s number of 1.8% of patients abusing the prescription drug system, if we assume that only .025 percent of the total prescriptions written in 2011 were the result of “doctor shopping,” this indicates as many as 105 million prescriptions were illegally diverted.
Of course, the real answer is probably much larger considering that only a small percentage of doctor shoppers are caught and tried in court, and the above example makes only very conservative estimates.
Is Doctor Shopping Illegal?
Doctor shopping is illegal regardless of local or state laws. To understand this in simple terms, any act or omission designed to deceive or manipulate a healthcare professional into prescribing medication in order to abuse, sell or transfer that medication is against federal law. Consequently, violations of this law many constitute a felony.
Law enforcement officials are known to aggressively pursue doctor shoppers in many areas of the country – especially those with significant prescription drug abuse problems. One of the most high profile cases of doctor shopping involved radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh was accused of duping 4 doctors in a half-year period to prescribe him as many as 2,000 painkillers. (4)
Other high profile cases (but of regular everyday people) include that of David Laffer and his wife, Melinda Brady. The two were accused of doctor shopping for around 12,000 painkillers in a case that began around 2007 and was made possible by the manipulation of dozens of doctors – some of whom may have been complicit. (5)
Finally, the day this article was written a veteran police officer with more than 21 years of service was arrested and booked into jail for doctor shopping in Louisiana. (6) So it’s clear that authorities are pursuing people who engage in this act. What’s not clear to drug abusers and addicts is that this is a criminal offense that despite public perception is not a white collar type of crime. It is a drug crime and it comes with all of the risk and potential punishment afforded to felons. (Although it should be noted that not every case of doctor shopping is tried as a felony.)
Punishments for Doctor Shopping
Punishments for doctor shopping vary widely from case to case. Generally, the more severe the offense is; such as a high number of doctors and pills involved, the more severe the punishment will be. Most people who are arrested and convicted of doctor shopping will be subject to one or all of the following:
Law enforcement and judicial officials are aware of the association between doctor shopping and drug addiction and often make special provisions for offenders with drug problems. Diversion programs may allow an individual to attend a detox, rehab or other type of addiction treatment or therapy in lieu of serving time in jail or prison. This option is usually reserved for first-time offenders.
Incarceration and hefty fines are likely if you’ve been caught doctor shopping. Punishments vary from state to state and depend on the merits of the case, but in states like Florida where the act is a felony, conviction could result in up to 5 years in prison (7) and $5,000 in fines. Conviction in California could result in three years in prison and a whopping $20,000 fine. (8) Other states have similar laws and base sentences on a number of variables, including previous convictions, seriousness of offense, likelihood of re-offending and other important considerations.
People engaged in doctor shopping should be aware that even if their conviction does not feature significant jail time or fines, there still could be life-changing consequences – especially if the conviction comes as a felony. And considering that people who are addicted to opiates (the most sought-after diverted prescription drug type) can take part in Opioid Replacement Therapy programs, there’s no excuse to doctor shop – even if you’re already addicted.
The fact of the matter is that the U.S. is cracking down on shopping for drugs and making it harder and harder to avoid detection. If you’re doctor shopping it’s important that you understand that your manipulation of doctors will ultimately only land you a prescription for prison.