They called him Dr. Hazmat, and federal officials alleged he was part of a pill mill called East Health Center in Garden City, dispensing prescriptions for oxycodone and other addictive drugs. In a Georgia court last year, a jury convicted Najam Azmat of 51 crimes.
This week, the 11th Circuit upheld his 133-month sentence in a lengthy decision that provides a disturbing picture of pill mill operations.
Patients at the Georgia clinic were referred to as “zombies” and “addicts” by marketers who recruited them. They found customers by intercepting people waiting at other pain clinics, talking to people at gas stations and cheap motels and looking for “raggedy” out-of-state cars. At the Garden City clinic, patients were “nodding” in the waiting room. They already knew what medications they would be prescribed and how much they would get. The clinic had no nurses and few medical supplies beyond a blood pressure cuff and a scale. Doctors had no malpractice insurance.
A group of Florida men opened the clinic in 2011 after that state cracked down on pill mills, and before doors were open it had out-of-state patients waiting for appointments. Dr. Azmat – a doctor with a lengthy history of problems – was the only physician working there at the start. He was paid in cash every day. But his tenure was brief. After about a month he was fired because patients were angry that he wasn’t giving them enough prescriptions, he refused to medicate some patients for various reasons and wouldn’t treat patients seeking other care because he didn’t have malpractice insurance. Another doctor quickly took his place.
Azmat was busted after other doctors who had responded to recruitment ads contacted authorities, suspicious about the operation.
One of Azmat’s arguments to the appeals court: Even if he wrote prescriptions for illegal purposes, he did not actually “dispense” the drugs because he didn’t deliver them.The court didn’t buy that, nor his argument that prosecutors had prejudiced the jury by inserting comments that he went to medical school in Pakistan and referring to conspirators as “wannabe wise guys from south Florida.”
That publication reported that a Waycross hospital had a secret agreement with Azmat not to report his poor patient care to a national database. That hospital and Azmat were sued by the U.S. for fraud.
When Azmat was first indicted in February 2013, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution had published an investigation of Georgia pain clinics. It found that convicted felons owned many of them. Finally, after 7 years of efforts to get lawmakers to regulate them, the Legislature that year passed a law that required pain clinics to be licensed, owned by doctors and employ only people who pass criminal background checks. A prescription drug monitoring program also began, to try to spot abuse.