Georgia Podiatrist and Office Manager Charged with Illegal Distribution of Opiates

On January 5, 2017, a Sandy Springs, Georgia podiatrist, Dr. Arnita Avery-Kelly and Brenda Lewis, Avery-Kelly’s office manager, were arraigned on federal charges of illegal distribution of opioid pain killers and other drugs at clinic locations purporting to provide podiatric care in Sandy Springs, and Lithonia, Georgia.  According to a Department of Justice press release, Dr. Avery-Kelly and Ms. Lewis were indicted by a federal grand jury on December 21, 2016.

According to U.S. Attorney John Horn for the Northern District of Georgia, the indictment, and other information presented in court:  A nearly three-year federal investigation began after the Georgia Drug & Narcotics Agency (GDNA) visited Dr. Avery-Kelly in November 2013, and February 2014, to discuss high volume, high dosage prescriptions she had written for opioids. The indictment alleges that despite GDNA’s warnings, Dr. Avery-Kelly, with the assistance of office manager, Brenda Lewis, continued to prescribe large volumes of controlled substances without a legitimate medical need and outside the scope of a podiatric practice.

During a nine-month period between December 2014 through August 2015, Dr. Avery-Kelly allegedly prescribed over 116,500 oxycodone 30mg pills, 41,800 hydromorphone 8mg pills, and 400 fentanyl patches. In April 2016, agents with the DEA and HHS executed a federal search warrant at Dr. Avery-Kelly’s office in Sandy Springs. At that time, Dr. Avery-Kelly voluntarily surrendered her DEA registration that permitted her to prescribe controlled substances.

“Health care fraud and the abuse of prescription medications are increasing threats to our local communities,” said Derrick L. Jackson, Special Agent-in-Charge of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General in Atlanta. “HHS-OIG continues to focus resources on those who divert prescription medication for profit and abuse. Our criminal investigators will continue to work with our law enforcement partners to bring the responsible individuals to justice.”

Avery-Kelly and Ms. Lewis are both charged with conspiring to distribute controlled substances outside the usual course of professional medical practice and for no legitimate medical purpose from November 2013 to December 2015. The drugs allegedly supplied include oxycodone, hydromorphone, fentanyl, hydrocodone, phentermine, alprazolam, and promethazine with codeine. Avery-Kelly is also charged with two counts of maintaining a podiatry clinic – first in Lithonia, Georgia and later in Sandy Springs, Georgia – for the purpose of illegally distributing drugs. Finally, Avery-Kelly is charged with fifty-seven individual counts of illegal drug distribution for specific prescriptions written to three separate customers. Ms. Lewis is charged with aiding and abetting Avery-Kelly for eight of those prescriptions.

“Dr. Avery-Kelly was trusted to provide appropriate medical care to her patients,” said U. S. Attorney John Horn. “Instead, with the assistance of Ms. Lewis, she allegedly prescribed addictive opioids without any legitimate medical need. Addiction to powerful prescription opioids unfortunately continues to take a daily toll on many members of our community.”

Prescribing medically unnecessary opiates is not only a major problem leading to drug abuse and addiction but also robs health care programs of scarce resources needed to pay for legitimate medical care. Therefore, under the qui tam provisions of the False Claims Act, whistleblowers with information about similar fraud against government health care programs may bring a civil case on behalf of the United States. If successful, the government can recover up to three times the amount the defendants fraudulently billed the government.  The whistleblower, who originally filed the case, is entitled to 15-30% of the government’s recovery as well as their attorney’s fees.

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