The `Poor Man's Heroin'
An Ohio surgeon helps feed a growing addiction to OxyContin
PORTSMOUTH, OHIO-- When Jeff Pennington opened up his antiques shop on many mornings last winter, he would notice dozens of people lined up on the sidewalk to see the doctor next door. The doctor, 48-year-old orthopedist John F. "Jeff" Lilly, had once specialized in setting broken limbs. But he had recently shifted his business to a new discipline called "pain management." Lilly's patients included everyone from young adults to grandmothers. But it was curious, Pennington thought. In over six months of watching this daily parade, he had seen only one patient on crutches.
In fact, prosecutors say, Lilly's pain management clinic was a front for one of the largest narcotics-selling operations in the Midwest--a pill mill that fed a soaring demand for illicit substances in this industrial city on the banks of the Ohio River. Last week, in one of the biggest such cases of its kind, Lilly pleaded guilty to engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity; he forfeited his medical license and was sentenced to three years in prison. In exchange, prosecutors dropped 46 counts of drug trafficking against him.
The case against Jeff Lilly, prosecutors say, illustrates the growing abuse of a highly addictive drug known as OxyContin, a morphinelike substance that has come to be known as the "poor man's heroin." OxyContin was prescribed in half the cases for which Lilly was charged, and nationwide, law enforcement officials say, illegal prescription of the drug is escalating. Statistics are hard to come by, but local law enforcement officials say that OxyContin abuse is reaching near-epidemic levels in rural areas such as northern Maine and western Virginia. Demand is driven by addiction and poverty. But it would not exist, prosecutors say, without doctors willing to write bogus prescriptions. Doctors, they say, like Jeff Lilly.
A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Cincinnati Medical School, Lilly had come to Portsmouth well recommended. But, as is often the case in areas underserved by medical professionals, the local hospital was willing to overlook some glaring problems in his past. In the early 1990s, while a surgeon at Pioneer Valley Hospital in Salt Lake City, Lilly settled at least one large malpractice lawsuit and was the subject of seven internal investigations, which resulted in his resignation in 1992. He joined Southeast Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth but was fired from a private orthopedics practice in 1993. At the same time, according to court documents, Lilly was diagnosed with an unspecified psychiatric disorder. In September 1998, he resigned from the hospital.
Crime wave. Last year, about the time Lilly started his pain clinic, local police noticed that drug-related crimes in Portsmouth had started to rise. Burglaries alone had increased 20 percent from the year before. For a period of about three months, police records show, homes or pharmacies were being broken into and robbed of prescription drugs almost daily. A Scioto County sheriff's deputy was arrested for stealing painkillers; a man tried to rob a pharmacy of OxyContin; and home break-in reports show the only things stolen were cash and pills. At the same time, pharmacists were noticing scores of seemingly healthy young men coming in with prescriptions for OxyContin.