By CHAD ABSHIRE
A former Mingo County doctor and minor political figure pleaded guilty Thursday to running a “pill mill” in Williamson
Diane Shafer, 60, faces up to four years in prison after admitting to conspiracy to misuse a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration registration number and to providing prescriptions for pain and anti-anxiety pills to people without examining them or determining they needed such drugs.
Prosecutors said Shafer wrote more than 118,000 prescriptions for controlled substances between 2003 and early 2010 — more than what some hospitals in West Virginia issued during that time.
With her plea, Shafer admitted that she left signed prescription slips at her Mingo County office throughout 2009. Her staff would hand them out for such drugs as hydrocodone, a painkiller, and the anti-anxiety medicine Xanax in exchange for cash while she was out.
Though she knew her office was distributing prescriptions, Shafer had not examined the people who received them or determined they were “for a legitimate medical purpose on the date actually issued,” her plea agreement filing said. “On the days (Shafer) was absent from her principal practice location, she did not know who was receiving controlled substances.”
Court documents showed that Shafer charged between $150 and $200 for an initial visit and $75 for subsequent visits, sometimes collecting the money herself.
Investigators said Shafer saw an inordinate amount of patients daily, so many that a line would form out of the office and into the street, with as many as 30 people waiting outside. Officers executing a search warrant in December 2009 said the condition of Shafer’s office would make it physically impossible for her to examine patients.
One patient described the office as running patients through her office “like cattle,” an average of 113 per day.
Shafer’s West Virginia medical license expired in late 2009, according to that board’s records, and she is no longer listed as active by the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure. Shafer surrendered her DEA registration and agreed to never re-apply for one as part of her plea deal with prosecutors, signed last month. She is also forfeiting $134,550 of the nearly $600,000 in cash and other assets seized by investigators in early 2010.
The federal guilty plea closes the door to a medical career that saw the physician repeatedly run afoul of licensing boards both in West Virginia and neighboring Kentucky. Previous ethics allegations had targeted her prescription practices and treatment of workers’ compensation patients, among other areas. Shafer secretly married the Kentucky official who presided over and later dismissed one of those ethics cases, while also giving him $42,500.
Her subsequent 1993 bribery conviction was later overturned.
Shafer ran and lost in this month’s GOP primary for the House of Delegates and to represent the state party at the Republican National Convention. A former Republican State Executive Committee member, Shafer was also a top individual donor to the West Virginia GOP last decade. She had switched parties after running for the Legislature repeatedly as a Democrat without success.
One other Williamson medical office was also raided amid an ongoing probe of “pill mills.” Shafer shared an apartment with one of the physicians who practiced at the now-closed Mountain Medical clinic. William Ryckman, 66, was sentenced in March to six months in prison after pleading guilty late last year to the same conspiracy felony as Shafer.
Both Ryckman and Shafer agreed to cooperate as part of their plea deals. In both Shafer’s case and the clinic’s, prosecutors have sought the forfeiture of more than $2.2 million in seized assets through civil lawsuits.
“It’s disgraceful when a physician abuses his or her position of trust to engage in conduct that ultimately destroys families and communities,” U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, southern West Virginia’s chief federal prosecutor, said in a statement. “I have zero tolerance for doctors or pharmacists who use their prescription power to victimize the vulnerable.”
U.S. District Court Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. set an Aug. 24 sentencing for Shafer, who remains free on bond.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.