Take Two Bottles of These. Call Me When You're Dead

Dr. Willard Hunter's repeated misprescription of dangerous drugs has contributed to two deaths. But the state medical board doesn't see any reason to revoke his doctor's license.

After her mother died, Michelle collected Dodson's pharmacy records. Michelle wanted to sue Hunter for medical malpractice, but was discouraged by an attorney. A jury, the lawyer explained, would side with Hunter. After all, Dodson was a suicidal drug addict.

For at least 15 years, in at least four reports, the Arizona auditor general has criticized Bomex, comprised mostly of doctors, for being too lax in disciplining physicians (see related story below). The state auditors have also repeatedly noted that Bomex can take years to investigate complaints. And once those complaints are investigated, they are not always investigated thoroughly.

In the case of Willard Hunter, public records show Bomex had ample warning that Hunter was misprescribing drugs long before Sykes and Dodson died.

In fact, just one month before Dodson died, Bomex had called Hunter in to discuss results of a cursory board survey of his practice that turned up evidence of misprescribing.

Hunter explained he saw 20 patients a day. Most needed pain medication. "I think I see a lot of patients nobody else wants," he said. "I think that my practice is such that my patients take more medicine than the average orthopedist's."

It was clear during that meeting that Willard Hunter had several patients who were addicts.

When explaining why he prescribed 14 daily doses of the potent and addictive painkiller Percocet to one patient (not Dodson), he said: "I think that on several occasions she told me that she lost them, flushed them down the toilet."

Other patients seemed to lose drugs regularly.
"Some people go to Swap and Shop, and their cars are broken into and their meds are stolen," Hunter explained. "Well, that's good for two or three times, but if that keeps happening, I have to quit giving them the medicine."

Instead of restricting Hunter's prescribing license, or taking away his medical license altogether, Bomex let Hunter off with a warning letter.

A month later, Geraldine Dodson died.
In April 1991, almost a year after Dodson's death, Bomex once again summoned Hunter. This time, the board asked him to explain why, in the face of a recent suicide attempt and hospitalization, Hunter refilled Dodson's prescriptions.

"I had been seeing the woman for five years and gave her the same medicine for five years," Hunter said. "She seemed to be a reliable person. ... I was trying to help her."

Asked if he addicted any patients in his 31 years of practice, Hunter said, "Maybe one or two."

Board members said the Dodson case was one of "medication abuse," but still did not discipline Hunter during that meeting. Instead, the board continued its investigation of his practice.

Investigators who reviewed more of the doctor's files turned up case after case of misprescribing--including the case of Jeff Sykes, who happened to be alive at the time.

A full 18 months after Dodson's death, Bomex put Hunter on three years' probation, limited his ability to prescribe some drugs under certain conditions and ordered him to take 80 hours of courses on prescribing and pain control.

Given Dodson's death, as well as numerous other documented cases of misprescribing, the punishment seems mild.

And dangerous.
Even though he was on probation, Hunter was still allowed to prescribe the drugs that contributed to the death of Jeff Sykes.

"Dr. Hunter was a big part of my son's life for many years," says Laverne Pippett, Jeff Sykes' mother. "I visited his office on two different occasions and told Dr. Hunter not to give Jeff those drugs, but he didn't seem to listen."

She remembers explaining to the doctor that Jeff was a drug addict on a methadone-maintenance program. Pippett has no delusions about her dead son, her favorite son. He became addicted to practically every drug he tried--opiates, prescription drugs, cocaine. He'd served a few years in prison for drug-related crimes. If the physician continued prescribing drugs, Pippett feared, Jeff would never straighten out and would surely go back to prison.

Jeff was Pippett's most affectionate child, the one who took time to sit down with her on the couch after she'd worked all day cutting hair and giving manicures at the beauty shop, the one who'd tell her she still looked pretty.

Jeff got addicted early, Pippett says, in high school. He once told a drug counselor his father got him started.

Now and then, he talked to his mother about stopping and had enrolled in the methadone program in hopes of controlling his addiction. Counselors at the methadone clinic asked Dr. Hunter to wean Jeff from the prescription drugs, but, they said, the doctor did not cooperate.

It is true that Jeff was in some pain--he smashed his car into a tree in 1991 while on drugs--and Hunter had performed a series of operations on Jeff's back.

But the methadone alone might have been enough to help Jeff cope with the pain.

"I've been getting him off his medicine," Hunter said at a Bomex hearing shortly before Jeff died. "His wife left him and took his medicine, and I refilled that about a week ago, and I'm going to reduce him after that."

But Hunter did not get Jeff off his medicine.
In May 1992, a day after refilling yet another round of prescriptions from Dr. Hunter, Jeff died of a drug overdose.

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