Florida Pain Doc Suspended; 34 Patients Dead

Dr. Joseph Hernandez is the fifth highest prescriber of oxycodone in Florida.

July 13, 2011— -- A Florida pain doctor could be charged in the death of many of his patients.

Dr. Joseph Hernandez was suspended July 6 by the Florida Department of Health for overprescribing opiate painkillers, addictive drugs that can be lethal in high doses.

Of the 761 patients Hernandez saw at his Lake City clinic between January and April 2011, 34 are dead, according to a Florida Department of Health report.

"I mean, people are going to abuse drugs," Gilbert Schaffnit, Hernandez's defense attorney, told ABC affiliate WCJB. "The question is, How is any doctor, Dr. Hernandez or any health care provider, going to be able to control against that?"

Schaffnit, who advised his client not to speak to the media, said Hernandez prescribed extra pills to spare his patients the cost of follow-up visits.

"The basic reason he prescribes the amount that he prescribes is because every time these people come back for refills, of course they're charged another doctor visit," Schaffnit told WCJB.

The Department of Health claims those extra pills led to fatal overdoses.

Hernandez is the fifth highest prescriber of oxycodone, the main ingredient in OxyContin, in Florida, a state notorious for "pill mills" that sell prescription drugs under the guise of clinics.

Prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States, according to the Gil Kerlikowske, White House director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. With 28,000 deaths in 2007, Kerlikowske said, it has surpassed the crack cocaine problem of the 1980s and the heroin epidemic of the 1990s combined.

"We are in the midst of a public health crisis driven by prescription drug abuses," Kerlikowske said in an April 19 press conference.

In April 2011, the Obama administration released a national plan to cut the rate of prescription drug abuse by 15 percent within five years by establishing state drug-monitoring programs, take-back initiatives that safely dispose of prescription drugs and education programs for patients and health care providers.

Hernandez's clinic, which investigators consider a pill mill, is closed until further notice. No hearing date has been set.

WCJB's Alexandra Cowley contributed to this report.