Thursday, April 26, 2018
Public safety

Pill mill doctor: I was driven by greed

One day last spring, Dr. Sanjeev Grover pulled into a Burger King parking lot near his home in Lutz. ¶ A former patient had arranged a meeting. The doctor got into the man's car and handed over four prescriptions he wrote for the painkiller oxycodone — 240 pills, 80 milligrams each. ¶ Grover had not examined the man beforehand. That made the prescriptions illegal. The former patient gave him $2,000 in cash.

They met again and again over the next few months. Grover gave him at least 36 prescriptions. In all, more than 5,000 pills. The doctor got $10,000.

Grover didn't know it, but the man was a Drug Enforcement Administration informer.

In October, agents arrived at Grover's home and slipped handcuffs around his wrists. His arrest — along with several other doctors dealing prescriptions and pain pills — was announced by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in Tampa.

Grover lost his medical license. He took a plea deal and will be sentenced in a Tampa courtroom today. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

Once, Grover had a fellowship at prestigious Duke University. He was a university professor. He treated cancer patients.

So how did he go from being a respected doctor to dealing pills outside a fast food restaurant?

The answer is simple: greed.

Grover, 49, pleaded guilty in March to federal charges of dispensing and distributing oxycodone.

He recently agreed to an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, offering a seldom-heard perspective about a prescription drug epidemic that kills an average of eight people a day in Florida.

"I don't believe in hiding myself anymore," he said. "Barring what has happened and what will happen to me … I still want to let the public know what's going on."

Grover said he didn't set out to be a pill mill doctor. He never wanted to be a physician at all.

He was born in Boston in 1963. His father, a medical researcher, moved the family to India in the 1970s.

Grover said he loved writing and movies and envisioned a career in the arts. His parents had other plans. He attended high school and medical school in India. He returned to the United States in the late 1980s.

He attended Philadelphia's Albert Einstein Medical Center in the mid 1990s and Duke for an oncology fellowship. He became an assistant professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. He helped open a children's oncology unit.

A few years later, he was ready to slow down. He wanted to spend more time with his wife and children. Today, his son is in college and his daughter is in high school.

The family moved to Florida in 2004, so Grover could take over a pediatric practice. He inherited more than 200 patients.

But Grover struggled to pay the bills. Overhead was high. Competition was heavy. He closed the business in 2008. His family lost its home.

He didn't work for months. He considered going into research. He tried writing a screenplay.

Then, he said, a pharmacist called with an offer to work at a pain clinic in Zephyrhills.

Grover had experience helping cancer patients manage pain. He thought it was a perfect fit.

But this is what he found: Cars with license plates from all over the country packed into the parking lot. Patients complaining of the same ailments — a bad back, a sore neck. They never stayed longer than 10 minutes or so.

"I realized … these people are addicts," Grover said. "That was my first eye-opening moment."

But the money was good.

Grover said he made about $5,000 a week. That income grew when he agreed to the Burger King deals.

"I was like a robot," he said. "I sold scripts for money because I was greedy."

• • •

In December 2010, a recruiter told Grover about a pain-management clinic in Palm Harbor.

He says people at Whitney Enterprises told him they wanted to turn it into a legitimate general practitioner's office, a place where parents could take their kids for physicals. Grover thought that sounded like a nice change.

But it was more of the same. Same out-of-state visitors. Same short visits. Same craving for pills.

He felt even more guilt. It wore on him.

"I was changing," he said. "I was becoming short with people. I was angry all the time, frustrated."

In July 2011, Grover said, he picked up a newspaper and read a front-page article about a Clearwater native who died from a drug overdose.

Jamie Lynne Godette, 23, was prescribed oxycodone for back problems while in high school.

Her mother, Lynne Knowles, 49, said she didn't realize her daughter was addicted until well after graduation.

"I found her in a Walgreens bathroom with a needle in her arm," she said.

Grover said Godette once came to him for pain pills. He remembers her clearly. She was a young woman with bright eyes. He thought she was smart, that she didn't belong in a pain clinic.

Grover said he offered Godette help to get clean. But she never returned.

He said his "heart stopped" when he read about her death.

Grover heard of another patient's overdose a couple of months later.

Manuel Valdes, 30, of Spring Hill, was found unresponsive in his home Sept. 26. An autopsy revealed he died of "multidrug toxicity." The Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office found oxycodone, morphine and Xanax in his system — and pill bottles with Grover's name on them.

Grover said he remembers prescribing Valdes pills about a week before his death.

Though he was shaken by the deaths, he kept on scribbling prescriptions.

"I was under pressure to see as many (patients) as I could," he said. "I really felt inside, I'm not helping anyone. I was killing them."

Knowles said Grover will have to live with that guilt, but she doesn't harbor any anger toward him. "To me there is no greater pain than that," she said.

• • •

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office spent 20 months investigating Whitney Enterprises. The state shut down the clinic in January.

Tampa lawyer Dale Sisco, who represents the clinic's owner, said Grover's allegations about the business "aren't worth responding to."

"Dr. Grover is clearly trying to help himself in terms of sentencing," Sisco said. "His credibility is questionable when he's selling prescription pads in a Burger King parking lot. This smacks of self-interest."

But Grover says he is motivated to speak publicly because he wants people to know more about this issue.

Though Grover says law enforcement has made progress fighting prescription drug abuse, he thinks the crisis will continue as long as there are doctors willing to do what he did.

He said pill mills are re-opening as weight-loss or injury centers to get authorities off their tails. Law enforcement will have to adjust, he said. He also thinks pain clinics should face random inspections by health officials.

Most of all, he thinks people need to understand how widespread the addiction is. He called the crisis a "medical debacle," and said there's no reason doctors should be prescribing someone so many types of narcotics.

Since his arrest, Grover has spent his days at home — a two-story house tucked in a tiny subdivision named Reflections — writing public service announcements about prescription drug abuse.

He said he hopes someone will get to see them some day.

"To this day, I'm haunted by the memory of these young kids dying," he said. "I'm haunted by the fact that I fed into a system that's totally corrupted, and now it's too late.

"Forget my life. It's done. But I think there is a way out of it."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.

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