TAMPA — A former pain clinic physician was sentenced to nine years in federal prison Friday for signing blank prescription slips for powerful painkillers like oxycodone.
Dr. Jeffrey Friedlander, 51, was a part owner and the sole licensed physician at the Neurology & Pain Center, which had three Tampa Bay area locations.
Co-owner Troy Wubbena, 44, of Tampa received 10 years in prison for filling out those pre-signed prescriptions, virtually no questions asked.
Friedlander and Wubbena each pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to distribute oxycodone and one count of conspiracy to defraud Medicare.
They ran two clinics on W Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa and one on Park Street N in St. Petersburg. They also had offices in Lakeland, Sarasota, Orlando and Jacksonville.
U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich sentenced Friedlander after hearing from several patients who praised his care, compassion and skill.
"Today I can work, I can function, because of Dr. Friedlander, so I think of him as my savior," said Tricia Hanley, an Orlando resident who saw Friedlander for five years for treatment of severe headaches and back problems.
But investigators talked to many other patients who said Friedlander saw them only once.
Some of the oxycodone that the clinic prescribed ended up being distributed by high school students in Pinellas County, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kathy Peluso said.
"He contributed significantly to the problem we now have in this community," Peluso told Kovachevich. "He should be treated like other pill pushers who come before this court every day."
Six times in 2008 and 2009, undercover Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives went to the clinic and were given prescriptions with no meaningful examinations, no verification of their complaints, no tests and no assessment for risk of abuse.
One detective never met with Friedlander and the other had only a very brief conversation about whether the detective had any pain.
The detectives often requested specific drugs and sometimes made it clear that they planned to share the drugs with others.
On those six visits, they were prescribed a total of 450 hydrocodone pills, 1,140 oxycodone pills and 120 Xanax pills, among others.
Friedlander acknowledged in the plea agreement that while he did not know directly what other clinic employees were doing, he deliberately ignored what was happening.
Friedlander's attorney sought a lesser sentence, saying the good the doctor had done was much more representative of his life than were his crimes.
Friedlander, who worked at the clinics from 2005 to 2009, saw his professional life spiral out of control after his mother died and his marriage started to disintegrate, federal public defender David Secular said.
But Kovachevich told Friedlander he should have sought professional help.
"It would appear to me that you voluntarily put yourself on this slippery slide," she said.
In addition to the prison terms, Kovachevich ordered Friedlander and Wubbena to pay Medicare more than $317,000 in restitution.
A resident of Palmetto, Friedlander gave up his Florida license to practice medicine this spring after complaints that he prescribed painkillers to someone in Virginia over the Internet without establishing a patient relationship.