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Denver doctor charged with illegal distribution of oxycodone

Associated Press Published: June 28, 2011
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DENVER — Ryan Lujan, 23, an award-winning athlete, died on the bathroom floor.

Derek Mefford, 28, a father of two boys, was found by his 10-year-old son.

Daryl Mattox, 41, was slumped over his couch.

The men had three things in common: All were addicts; all were patients of Dr. Kevin Clemmer, a suburban Denver osteopath; and all of them died after overdosing on prescription drugs.

Clemmer, who has neither been charged nor implicated by authorities in any of the deaths, is facing more than 50 federal criminal counts of distributing oxycodone — a synthetic opiate similar to heroin — "outside the scope of professional practice."

He has pleaded not guilty and is set for trial at the end of July. Authorities said in court papers they have investigated his connection to the three deaths, and perhaps others.

Clemmer's case puts faces on what drug addiction specialists say is an alarming trend in the illicit narcotics trade in Colorado.

In the Denver area, emergency room visits for oxycodone abuse rose from 234 in 2004 to 1,256 in 2009, according to statistics from the Drug Abuse Warning Network that uses data from local hospitals.

Across Colorado, the number of treatment admissions for opioids not prescribed by a doctor has risen from 824 in 2006 to 1,715 in 2010, according to the Colorado Division of Behavioral Health.

A three-year analysis of Colorado's Prescription Drug Monitoring Database shows an average of 41,203 hydrocodone prescriptions and 34,516 oxycodone prescriptions are filled just for Denver residents every three months.

From 2007 to 2010, the number of prescriptions written in Denver alone for oxycodone rose by 41 percent, according to the Denver Office of Drug Strategy.

In 2009, 70 percent of the drug-related deaths in Denver involved the abuse of prescription drugs, according to statistics from Peer Assistance Services, a group dedicated to battling substance abuse.

In 1995, the FDA approved OxyContin for moderate to severe pain and since then an increasing number of people have sought drug treatment for abusing it.

"It was almost instantly sort of an issue," said Art Schut, deputy director of the drug addiction clinic Arapahoe House. "People were being prescribed 300 tabs of it which was supposed to be used over a long period of time. But immediately people find a way to defeat the time-release portion of it."

Abusers can inject, crush and manipulate the tablets to consume the drug all at once to achieve a high rather than taking the pill and waiting for the drug to slowly act as a pain reliever.

In recent years, the drug has come into even greater use because it carries a hint of respectability not found in street heroin. Studies have shown that some abusers believe the drugs are safer to use because they are typically prescribed by a doctor and not necessarily purchased by a drug dealer on the street, Schut said.

Though doctors offices like the one Clemmer is alleged to have run, known as "pill mills" in law enforcement circles, are increasingly popular nationally, the trend has not resulted in a surge in arrests in Colorado.

Here, only a handful of doctors have been prosecuted or investigated for illegal distribution of prescription pain pills — typically for personal use.

But the DEA has taken several administrative actions against doctors for abusing prescription privileges — 84 cases in the past three years in Colorado.

Those sanctions could include civil actions, including surrendering their DEA registration number which allows them to prescribe, said Special Agent Mike Turner.

In a standard pill mill, patients are required to pay cash, undergo a minimal examination, and are then prescribed dozens of OxyContin pills.

That's how Clemmer's office operated, according to court papers filed in his case and former patients.

"We started going to Clemmer and he'd write prescriptions like candy," said Ken Mefford, father of Derek, and himself an addict and former Clemmer patient who has been sober for two years. "No blood work or (urine test) or anything. He would write a prescription and it would be $125 for an office visit and I could get methadone and OxyContin and Xanax. I was getting 300 pills a month on methadone and then I would get the OxyContin and I would just turn around and sell them, the same with the Xanax."

In 1994, Clemmer graduated from Western University of Health Sciences, College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific in Pomona, Calif.

He obtained his license to practice medicine a year later. But irregularities and missteps began to show up in his patients' records as early as 1996, according to records from the Colorado Medical Board.

In 2002, the medical board placed Clemmer on probation for five years after reviewing his medical records which showed he didn't conduct routine exams for people with serious medical problems and, in two cases, prescribed narcotics to patients who showed signs they were abusing Percocet.

Clemmer abided by the terms of his five-year probation, allowing an independent physician to monitor a sampling of his medical records each month, the records show. In February 2008, the Colorado Medical Board lifted his probation because he was in compliance, said Chris Lines, a spokesman for the Department of Regulatory Agencies.

But the complaints about Clemmer started again in April 2009 when an anonymous caller left a voicemail message for law enforcement: "Kevin Clemmer ... sells pills to a lot of people, who resell them illegally."

Six months later, a mother called the West Metro Drug Task Force who told them she followed her daughter and found she was getting prescription drugs from Clemmer.

"The mother did not know what her daughter is doing with all the drugs, but she believed that the daughter is using at least some of them because her behavior has changed," a federal agent wrote in court records.

In late 2009, agents from the federal Drug Enforcement Administration began interviewing several Denver area pharmacists who had stopped filling Clemmer's prescriptions after drug-addled customers starting coming in with wads of cash for painkillers. Some of the customers purchased needles along with their prescriptions.

In May, June and July 2010 DEA Special Agent Tyler Brown went inside the doctor's clinic as an undercover patient and scored a prescription for oxycodone after the doctor coached him on how to fill out a complaint of pain on his medical records, according to an affidavit.

The office visit was recorded by the undercover agent.

Brown also purchased oxycodone from Clemmer's former staff assistant Tina Sheldon in a side deal in front of the clinic, the affidavit says. Agent Brown and Sheldon met another time in a parking lot in Arvada and he purchased $60 in methamphetamine from her, court records say.

Sheldon, 41, and two other people, Noah Ziegler, 29 and Angela Lee, 38, were also indicted with Clemmer on charges of illegal distribution of oxycodone.

The Colorado Medical Board issued an emergency suspension of Clemmer's license to practice medicine on May 24.