A Department of Veterans Affairs hospital hired a doctor as its chief of opiate safety shortly after his privileges were suspended in another state, when 35 patients died of drug issues in his care.
Dr. John K. Sturman Jr. was hauled out of a VA meeting in handcuffs in August and charged with three counts of homicide and 16 felony counts of issuing invalid prescriptions.
The VA hospital in Danville, Illinois, had hired the pain doctor in April, 2015, after the dozens of deaths, which occurred in Indiana, and despite the fact that he lost his privileges in Indiana in 2012, and had been reprimanded for his use of opiates in California in 2003.
Fifteen patients died of overdose or toxicity within a month of receiving treatment from him between 2009 and 2012, according to charging papers that say he “recklessly killed another human … by writing and/or issuing prescriptions.”
He allegedly had a pattern of giving obvious drug addicts frequently-abused drugs without medical cause, and billing the charges to Medicaid.
The VA hospital tasked him with implementing its “Opiod Safety Initiative.”
VA has not informed any of the 96 veterans being treated by him for pain management of the charges, and says it didn’t know about prior discipline, which was easily discoverable on Google.
The arrest stemmed from an investigation by Indiana’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, indicating he was billing taxpayers for the abuse of heroin-like drugs.
Although both California and Indiana had problems with his prescribing practices, the VA was comfortable with them, finding that “Dr. Sturman did diligently implement OSI,” despite finding that five of his cases were “complex” due to “challenges involved in management of care.”
That is despite one veteran filing a complaint with the VA saying, “He gave me pain meds that didn’t help my pain and made me addicted to the pain meds … Since this happened the VA has done nothing to make sure I am okay,” he said. “I just can’t wait until I get Social Security so I never have to be seen by the careless doctors at the VA.”
Sturman has resigned from the VA, and in his absence vets can’t be seen for pain treatment at the facility and are bounced back to their primary care doctors, the VA said.
Charging papers lay out a litany of examples in which Sturman was allegedly giving opiates to plainly drug-seeking addicts, with little evidence of actual medical need, and billing taxpayers via Medicaid for the opiates.
A medical review of one of the deceased, for example, found “a prescriptive pattern of high dose polypharmacy for purposes of addiction and not for the treatment of chronic pain. Addiction behaviors, substance abuse and alcoholism are clearly documented in the chart, but Dr. John Sturman continues to prescribe methadone, Dilaudid, and Valium without a legitimate medical purpose.”
“Sturman demonstrates willful blindness with the continued prescriptive use of high dose methadone,” a doctor who reviewed the deaths says in charging papers. “There is no evidence that Dr. John Sturman considered psychiatric or substance abuse counseling as part of the treatment plan. The treatment plan is entirely opiate centric.”
To another patient who died, Sturman had given 81 prescriptions in two and a half years.
To a third patient, described as a 250-pound female welfare recipient with a history of drug abuse, he gave large doses of opiates, even though she never showed up for months of appointments and, when she did, her urine showed illegal drug use.
Sturman was willing to prescribe “multiple high dose opiates based on subjective patient complaints and without additional medical evaluation,” the review said. “Opiates plus methadone plus benzodiazepine is recognized as a street popular and lethal combination of prescription medication. It is not a medically legitimate regiment.”
Googling Sturman’s name before hiring him would have immediately alerted VA hiring managers to his past opiate safety problems. A top search result for his name is a 2003 listing in the LA Times’ “Bad Docs” section that says he “failed to obtain supporting documentation for conditions producing chronic pain, and failed to document a treatment plan for the patient’s addiction to a Schedule IV controlled drug. Disciplined via public letter of reprimand.”
Sturman was unemployed from July of 2012 until February of 2014, which also could have been a red flag to VA hiring managers for a field with high demand for doctors’ services. The VA has a severe shortage of doctors, and claims that the reason is that it takes a long time to hire them because of an extensive vetting process.
Stulman lost his admitting privileges in 2012, and in 2013, Indiana’s licensing renewal process flagged him for further review because he answered “yes” on a form asking whether he had been recently disciplined.
Yet VA’s hiring process failed to catch him in a similar manner.
“At the time Dr. Sturman was hired, the National Practitioner Database (NPDB) and the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) were clear with no actions,” the VA wrote to Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk. “VAIHCS was not aware that he was under federal investigation nor was he ever under investigation by the Department of Veteran [sic] Affairs.”
This statement is odd since Sturman was under state investigation, not federal.
The charges carry decades in prison. He made bail of $60,000 in Indiana and his trial was set for October 2015. But a judge recused himself because of a conflict of interest, and the trial was postponed.
Now, Sturman could get off lightly because of a controversial interpretation of the five-year statute of limitations. On December 11, a judge dismissed the three homicide charges and all but six of the 16 felony drug charges.
One of the patients died on August 6, 2010, one day under five years from when he was arrested on August 5, 2015. The other two whose deaths he is charged in died in December 2011.
But the judge appeared to conclude that since he started prescribing them before their deaths, the statute of limitations should begin on that date. Whereas someone can be charged with murder even if the victim doesn’t die of the injuries until years later, for homicide, the statute is based on whether the defendant’s actions “commenced.”
In prosecutors’ view, Sturman’s prescription practices were “but one continuous crime.” The state of Indiana filed an appeal last month.
The dangerous doping up of veterans, seemingly because it is easier than dealing with the causes of their conditions, has been a major issue at other VA facilities, including Tomah, Wisc. — where a top doctor was known as the “Candy Man” — since well before VA hired Sturman.
[dcquiz] TheDCNF reported last month that the director of Sturman’s hospital was found by VA headquarters to have rarely come in to work, and to have threatened to fire a subordinate for reporting that, but that civil service rules prevented Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson from firing him, so Gibson paid him more than $100,000 to resign.
“As Chairman of the subcommittee that oversees federal funding for the VA, I will not rest until we end the culture of corruption at the VA,” Kirk told The Daily Caller News Foundation in a statement.
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