A former Roanoke, Virginia physician who wrote more than 3,000 needless prescriptions, mixing powerful painkillers into narcotic cocktails that killed at least four of her patients, was sentenced Monday to three years in prison.
“Dr. Lewis, you are a drug dealer and you profited from this,” U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Dillon told Verna M. Lewis. “You preyed on patients who trusted you to help them.”
Lewis, who ran a solo rehabilitation and pain management practice, was not held criminally responsible for the accidental overdoses. Autopsies found they were caused by a mix of her prescriptions with illegal street drugs or over-the-counter medications her patients acquired elsewhere.
Last year, the 70-year-old pleaded guilty to a single count of dispensing controlled substances — oxycodone, morphine and hyrdomorphone — without a legitimate medical purpose.
But Assistant U.S Attorney Kristin Johnson was allowed to bring up the deaths at sentencing, arguing that they were part of a long-standing pattern of Lewis providing large doses of drugs with little medical examination.
“Dr. Lewis literally flooded the streets of our community with opioids,” Johnson said.
An opioid epidemic that took root two decades ago in the coal fields of far Southwest Virginia has spread across the state. The Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office reported 1,627 overdose deaths in 2019 — an increase of 324% since 1999.
In Roanoke, Johnson said, a significant part of the problem can be traced to Lewis’s Quality of Life Medical Specialties practice. Testimony during a five-hour sentencing hearing Monday afternoon showed that Lewis was in the top 1% of opioid prescribers in Virginia, excluding oncologists.
“She knew exactly what she was doing,” the prosecutor said in asking for a prison sentence. “This is not a one-time lapse in judgment. This is not a recent phenomenon … She failed both her patients and the community at large.”
Although defense attorney Jennifer DeGraw cited Lewis’ poor mental and physical heath in asking for home incarceration and probation, Johnson countered that the only appropriate sentence called for deterrence.
“Doctors are watching these cases,” she said. “They’re paying attention. If they see this doctor avoid a prison sentence, what kind of message is that sending?”
According to court records, Lewis grossed about $523,000 from illegal prescriptions over a two-year period that ended in March 2019. The doctor, who surrendered her medical license and retired shortly after drug agents raided her practice later that year, has since paid a $500,000 forfeiture to the federal government.
Details about the deaths of her patients were limited. A summary of the charges introduced as evidence identified three by initials only, and many court records were sealed to protect patient confidentiality.
But four names were mentioned in testimony, including that of Kyle Hagan, a 32-year-old Christiansburg man who died of a fatal overdose in 2017.
“I was the one who disagreed with Dr. Lewis,” Hagan’s father, David, said in a statement to the court. While other members of his family believed that Kyle needed pain relief after major back surgery, David Hagan said he couldn’t understand why the doses kept going up.
Hagan said he filed a complaint against Lewis with the Virginia Board of Medicine but was forced to watch helplessly as his son became more and more drugged.
The dispute destroyed his 40-year marriage and eventually took the life of his son, Hagan said.
“I tried to reason with him,” Hagan recalled. “I said, son, you’re simply going to die.” But his son seemed more concerned about being cut off from his steady supply of medication, Hagan told the judge.
Lewis, who sat quietly at the defense table dressed in a black-and-white business suit and a matching face mask, showed no visible reaction to the statements of Hagan and another victim’s family member.
In 2013, the Board of Medicine dismissed disciplinary charges against Lewis in a different case. The board found insufficient evidence to show that one of her patients, who suffered from chronic pain and had been treated for opioid dependence, actually became addicted to the oxycodone prescribed to her.
The board had earlier suspended Lewis’s license following her conviction and imprisonment in 1999 on tax evasion charges.
Lt. David Clements, a drug task force agent who investigated the case, testified that documents obtained in a search of Lewis’s office showed that she made several requests to the board to restore her ability to practice medicine before her license was eventually reinstated.
Clements also presented a video of a secretly recorded conversation between Lewis and one of her patients, who was working for law enforcement as a confidential informant.
“Other doctors are not going to give you this much medication,” Lewis said at one point. The video also showed that she discussed with the patient the possibility of him getting a prescription from a second doctor to avert any suspicion.
As part of her sentence, Lewis was fined $10,000 and agreed never to practice medicine again.
Lewis was diagnosed with mild dementia in early 2020, and her attorney cited her mental condition combined with other ailments that included diabetes and hypertension in asking for home incarceration.
It was unclear what role — if any — the doctor’s cognitive disorders played in her criminal conduct.
In remarks to Dillon before her sentence was pronounced, Lewis called the case “one of my deepest regrets.”
“My work as a physician was one of the highlights of my life. I cherished my relationship with my patients.” she said. “I am saddened by the knowledge that my actions may have caused harm to any patients under my care.”
Dillon allowed Lewis to remain free after the hearing, ordering her to self-report to a facility that will be determined by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Both the judge and prosecutor likened the doctor’s actions to that of a street drug dealer. “The only difference,” Johnson said, “is that she’s wearing a white coat.”
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