Oliver Herndon, 40, of McMurray, must also repay $700,000 to two health insurance companies which paid for most of the drugs—$490,000 to UPMC for You and $210,000 to Gateway Health Plan. He was immediately ordered to begin serving his 11-year, three-month sentence by U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab.
Herndon pleaded guilty in May to a charge of intentionally prescribing controlled substances—mostly the painkillers oxycodone and oxymorphone—without a legitimate medical purpose and with health care fraud and agreed to the sentence imposed. Schwab was not bound by that agreement, but accepted it as fair.
"My actions since last year were wrong and I accept responsibility for my actions," Herndon, a married father of five, told the judge, calling his actions a "mistake."
"With all due respect, sir, it wasn't a mistake, it was a criminal act, many criminal acts over a period of time affecting many people's lives," Schwab said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kaufman said the investigation began last fall when 26 Pittsburgh-area pharmacies contacted federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents with concerns about unusually large prescriptions for narcotic painkillers from Herndon.
The DEA raided Herndon's palliative care practice in the upscale suburb of Peters Township in February, and revoked his federal license to issue narcotic prescriptions after visiting another 128 area pharmacies only to find 87 others had stopped filling Herndon's prescriptions, too. One even posted a sign on the door alerting customers to its ban.
Herndon's prescriptions flooded the streets with so many pills that the street price for a single oxycodone tablet jumped to $40, from $20 or $30 each, depending upon the location, after he was arrested, Kaufman said.
Herndon said in court that he's lost his medical license, too, though computer records with the Pennsylvania Department of State show it remains active through the end of a year. A spokeswoman for the federal prosecutor's office said Herndon must be assuming he'll lose his license now that his court case is officially adjudicated.
In any event, Herndon told the judge he hopes to regain his license and care for "underserved populations" including poorer people or prisoners once he finishes his prison term.
"I'd like to have the opportunity to care for people again, this time from a selfless perspective," Herndon told the judge, who had remarked that Herndon's motives in filling the prescriptions was "purely financial."
Kaufman told the judge that the "harsh" sentence was necessary because of the growing problem of prescription drug abuse.
"Prescription drug abuse is now eclipsing heroin and cocaine abuse as the major narcotics addiction in the country," Kaufman said. "Physicians are our gatekeepers" to prescription drugs and the sentence "recognizes the substantial harm that Dr. Herndon has caused through his actions."