Tuesday, November 21, 2017
News Roundup

Palm Harbor oncologist gets nearly six years in prison for smuggling chemo drugs from overseas

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TAMPA — A disgraced former Palm Harbor doctor who bought discounted foreign-label cancer drugs without government approval and used them on unsuspecting patients was sentenced Friday to nearly six years in prison.

Dr. Diana Anda Norbergs wept through a lengthy statement in front of U.S. District Judge James Moody. She apologized to her patients, 66 of whom were deemed to be victims of her crimes.

"I am so sorry for the stress I may have caused you and your family members," she said. "My patients were the most important thing in my life. I would never intentionally harm anybody."

The judge ordered Norbergs to serve 70 months in federal prison. But she will remain free on bond pending an appeal of her conviction.

In November, a jury convicted Norbergs, 61, of receipt and delivery of misbranded drugs, smuggling goods into the United States, health care fraud and mail fraud.

She formerly operated East Lake Oncology, where she administered at least $700,000 worth of the foreign drugs, then billed Medicare as if she had used the higher-priced U.S. versions. She obtained the drugs — which had names like MabThera, Eprex, Ribomustin, Neulastim, and Zometa — from distributors in the United Kingdom and Canada.

While she was convicted of buying unapproved drugs, none of the evidence at her trial suggested her patients suffered any harm when they received them. That was something her defense attorney, George Tragos, noted repeatedly.

In her statement, Norbergs said she believed the drugs she administered were essentially the same as the government-approved U.S. versions. If they had been counterfeit medications, the effects would have been noticeable, she said.

But Moody, in pronouncing the sentence, said Norbergs had violated the trust patients placed in her.

"Were I a patient, and I received nonapproved drugs, I would be angry," the judge said.

Family members of some patients filled the gallery behind the prosecutors. Some spoke to the judge.

"I'll spend the rest of my life wondering if my mother would have lived longer if she'd gotten the treatment she deserved," said Lori Reed, whose mother, Wanda Colgan, died in 2011.

Sentencing memos filed by the government and Norbergs' defense attorneys disagreed on a number of facts, including the number of victims.

The defense, noting that no one was physically harmed, said the only real victim is Medicare. But Moody did not buy their argument, finding that their status as cancer patients made them vulnerable.

At trial, prosecutors said her motive was greed. She bought the less expensive foreign unapproved drugs to save money.

Norbergs testified in her defense, saying she believed the drugs she was receiving were approved by the Food and Drug Administration and that the companies she bought from could sell drugs in the United States. Had she known otherwise, she would have stopped buying and administering the drugs, she said.

She said her office manager handled much of the paperwork related to drug purchases.

But prosecutors said Norbergs knew what she was doing. Among other evidence, they noted a visit she received in 2011 from an FDA agent, who gave her a subpoena for business records and told her to stop buying foreign, unapproved drugs. Despite the warning, the purchases continued.

Mitchell Kroungold, a psychologist who had examined Norbergs before sentencing, testified that her intelligence was lower than that of most practicing physicians.

He measured her IQ score at 108, which is average. Most doctors, he explained, would have IQ's in the high or superior range.

Kroungold said Norbergs has a "mild neurocognitive disorder," which he said may have been brought on by a medically induced coma she had following a 2006 back surgery. She also has a "compulsive and dependent personality style."

"She is more of a detailed person," Kroungold said. "She misses the big picture."

Moody seized on the doctor's assessment. He noted that, as a detail-oriented person, she would have noticed the invoices for drug purchases her office manager left on her desk.

State records show Norbergs voluntarily relinquished her medical license in May. In addition to the prison sentence, Moody ordered Norbergs to pay $848,671 in restitution, most of it to Medicare.

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