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Pill mill doctor says he's somewhere between 'innocent fool and guilty'

JESUP, Ga. — Jeffrey Friedlander had an unusual way of practicing medicine.

As part-owner and medical director of a chain of pain clinics, he drove as much as he doctored — Jacksonville to Orlando to Tampa to St. Petersburg to Sarasota.

Exhausted, he would often go into a back room when he arrived at a clinic, close the door, stretch out on a cot and watch reruns of his favorite cartoon, The Simpsons. Then he'd take a nap.

Meanwhile, prescriptions he presigned were filled in and doled out by others. Some "patients'' were pain pill addicts; others didn't even exist. A lot of the narcotics were sold on the street, some by Pinellas high school students. Friedlander said he didn't know where the pills went.

"Willful ignorance," prosecutors called his actions.

He lost his medical license and started a nine-year federal prison term last fall after pleading guilty to conspiring to distribute prescriptions illegally and defrauding Medicare. Prosecutors say he wrongly dispensed 2.2 million grams of oxycodone, the No. 1 choice of pain pill addicts. No deaths were connected to the clinic.

Most pill mill doctors are motivated by money, say experts. But the story of how Friedlander went from doctor to inmate is more complicated than that stereotype.

Now 52, he is baffled at how his life unraveled.

"It wasn't that I didn't care about my patients,'' he said during a 2 1/2-hour interview at the federal prison in Jesup, Ga.

"There were just too many demands on me and I was overwhelmed and exhausted,'' said Friedlander, who is taking antidepressants.

By turns sarcastic and somber, he told of receiving a letter that his medical license had been revoked "with a P.S. telling me castration is next." Then, he muttered, "I'm afraid of ending up in a gutter, starving to death."

How could he allow others to hand out his prescriptions?

"I know it sounds ludicrous to say I didn't know they were handing them out," he said.

"I guess that puts me somewhere between innocent fool and guilty. But nine years in prison?"

• • •

Friedlander's father was a pharmacist who owned a drugstore — with soda fountain — in a small Pennsylvania town.

"The gods were the doctors," he recalled. His path was clear. Not only would he make his father proud, he would prove wrong the kids who teased him for being a geek.

He whipped through Washington and Jefferson University in 2 1/2 years. Realizing he could finish medical school in three years if he went overseas, he applied to just one: American University of the Caribbean in Montserrat.

Classmate Robert George, a family practice doctor in Missouri, remembers him: "Jeff was a brilliant kid — more interested in science than money. Nothing about him said criminal."

Friedlander became an internal medicine resident at Deaconess Hospital in St. Louis. He applied for jobs. But he found it hard to make eye contact and conversation with interviewers. He discovered that the offshore medical school was a detriment.

He wound up in a Humana clinic in St. Louis, then moved to Florida to be near his retired parents. He worked at walk-in clinics and emergency rooms, but didn't hold a job.

He was happiest poring over medical books, said his girlfriend at the time, JoAnn Carter.

"His behavior worried me. He was antisocial and isolated himself — very intelligent but unable to see what was going on around him," she said. Hoping more education was the solution, Friedlander took a three-year neurology residency at the State University of New York in Syracuse. He became chief resident, then a fellow in neuromuscular disease and pain management.

In 1996, he became assistant clinical professor of neurology at the University of South Florida.

But the money wasn't enough.

"I'm not a materialistic weasel. But I did think a doctor with my training and specialties should be making at least $200,000 a year," he said.

So, he kept changing jobs.

• • •

In 1999, at age 40, he married nurse practitioner Laura Deleruyelle. Traits that worried Carter entranced Deleruyelle. "He was like a brilliant, adorable little boy," she said.

The newlyweds spent weekends playing with their two small champagne poodles and going to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.

"Disney is a world I prefer to this one — so clean and predictable with such nice people," said Friedlander.

In 2002, he was making over $160,000 a year at Lakeland Regional Hospital, and clinics in Bradenton and Tampa.

"It was the happiest time of my adult life," he said. "I had Laura, the dogs, a decent income and weekends where I liked to be."

Then came the chance to hit his magic number: over $200,000 a year.

• • •

In 2005, he teamed up with Troy Wubbena, a physician assistant who owned Neurology & Pain Centers, with six clinics strung between Jacksonville and Sarasota. Friedlander would be the only physician on staff, and he would take a cut of the profits.

Despite the name, most patients were there for pain. "I missed strokes, seizures and spinal columns," he said.

He hated the driving and clamoring for drugs. But he stayed.

His marriage crumbled. His mother died. He went off and on prescription tranquilizers, and occasionally took narcotic pain pills, but rarely drank. Insomnia plagued him.

Maggie Richards says he was a good doctor, but odd. Once, she complained about pain, and Friedlander increased her Roxicodone from 10 to 20 milligrams.

She expressed surprise.

"Knock yourself out," she said he told her.

"I probably said that,'' Friedlander said. "My sense of humor is to be sarcastic."

In October 2007, a detective posing as a pill addict went to the Tampa clinic and saw Wubbena, who gave him an OxyContin prescription signed by Friedlander, whom the detective never saw.

Between 2008 and 2009, two Hillsborough County detectives posing as pill seekers visited the Tampa clinic six times. They recorded staff members laughing over how much they made off Friedlander's prescriptions.

They recorded Friedlander walking in on Wubbena and asking what he was doing.

"Dealing drugs," Wubbena said. Friedlander laughed.

"I took it as a joke," he said.

He was marched out of the Tampa clinic on April 6, 2009, in scrubs and handcuffs. He tested negative for drugs.

According to court records, he received $317,000 over three years for his work.

Pill mill doctor says he's somewhere between 'innocent fool and guilty' 06/25/11 [Last modified: Sunday, June 26, 2011 1:27pm]
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