Dr. Scott W. Houghton's self portrayal as an old-school, compassionate doctor hit a few snags in court Wednesday – namely 47 felony drug counts and allegations he took cash and gifts in exchange for drug prescriptions.
Houghton, of Madison, and his lawyer, William F. Dow III, appeared before Superior Court Judge David P. Gold to apply for accelerated rehabilation. If he's granted the program, and stays out of trouble for a year or two, all the criminal charges would be wiped from his record.
But prosecutors are fighting his bid for the probationary program that would spare him jail time. Also, Houghton's case has come to court at a time when state regulators are cracking down on pain doctors who excessively overprescribe narcotics to patients. In the last two years, at lease a half-dozen doctors have been fined, or had their licenses revoked or suspended, for drug violations. Houghton's medical license was suspended in the late summer of 2011 after his arrest.
On Wednesday, Senior Assistant State's Attorney Russell Zentner called to the witness stand a former drug control agent who had investigated Houghton for 2½ years before the doctor's arrest in April 2011. Houghton was charged with 47 counts of illegally prescribing drugs for more than two dozen patients in exchange for cash, gifts and favors.
Residents of a substance abuse recovery house dubbed Houghton "the Candy Man" because for $100, they said he would write a prescription without any exams, court records said.
The arrest came one year after his house was raided by law enforcement officers. Court records show that at least nine of the drug transactions with which Houghton is charged occurred after the raid.
The agent, Deborah B. Komoroski, a former employee of the state Department of Consumer Protection's drug control division, testified that a patient – who reportedly went to Houghton'sOld Saybrook office up to three times a day for injections of Demerol – told her he gave Houghton 11 tickets to shows and concerts at the Mohegan Sun casino.
Komoroski testified that when she asked Houghton about the tickets during a Feb. 2, 2010 interview, he told her, "I know I overprescribe…the gifts may have skewed my judgment."
Komoroski also testified that Houghton in 2008 had exceeded the number of Suboxone patients he was allowed to have by law.
Komoroski said from April 2007 until September 2008, Houghton was permitted to prescribe Suboxone – which is taken for the treatment of opiate addiction – to a maximum of 30 patients. She testified that Houghton had 48 such patients in January 2008 and 97 patients by July 2008.
But Houghton's lawyer didn't come to the the Superior Court hearing on Wednesday to stand idly by.
In pushing for the probationary programs, Dow has portrayed Houghton as a dedicated doctor willing to make house calls, give out his cellphone number and take extraordinary measures to help his patients.
Under questioning from Dow on Wednesday, Komoroski said the high roller also gave gifts to other members of the staff in Houghton's office. She also testified that cash payments to doctors who prescribe medication are not illegal.
Dow asked Komoroski if, while working as a drug control agent, she ever advised physicians about the proper methodology of prescribing medication. Komoroski said she had spoken to "quite a few" doctors, but acknowledged she never advised Houghton about his practices.
Judge Gold on Wednesday held off on ruling on Houghton's application and continued the case to May 14.
After Wednesday's hearing, Dow said he was disturbed by Komoroski's testimony that she never told Houghton he may have been mishandling prescriptions.
"Over the course of the long investigation, no one went to the doctor and advised him to amend his practices as they had done in other cases," Dow said. "In the meantime, patients were left at-risk. I believe our patient population is entitled to more than that."
The charges against Houghton have a familiar ring in Connecticut.
Over the last two years, state regulators have taken disciplinary action against at least a half-dozen doctors for improperly prescribing narcotics or suboxone to patients.
One theme running through most of these cases is that that the doctor failed to asses or examine patients, as required, before writing prescriptions for morphine, oxycodone, or other powerful, potentially addictive drugs.
Also, a number of the patients who weren't examined were already drug-addicted or suicidal. Several drug-addicted patients have died of overdoses or suicide during the last two years in Connecticut, involving drugs that were prescribed by their doctor.
In September 2011, state regulators revoked the license of a Yale-educated psychiatrist, Gerson Sternstein, for recklessly overmedicating 10 patients at his clinic in Berlin. In addition, two patients died of overdoses while under his care.
Sternstein was, by a wide margin, the most prolific prescriber of certain pain medications in Connecticut in 2008 and 2009, records show. For example, in 2008, Sternstein wrote 604 prescriptions for Actiq, a pain medication 80 times stronger than morphine, and billed Medicaid for $1.1 million. The next highest prescriber wrote 277 prescriptions for Actiq and submitted bills in the amount of $495,000.
In March 2012, a Cheshire physician, Jyoji Bristol, had his medical license revoked for twice having consensual sex with a drug-addicted patient, writing prescriptions for narcotics for her while sitting with her in Starbucks, and driving her to the pharmacy even though she had already gotten drugs from 33 other prescribers, according to state records.
Investigators with the state Department of Public Health reported in 2008 and 2009 that Bristol had repeatedly prescribed opiates to drug-addicted patients without proper examinations.
Last summer, as police and prosecutors pressed dozens of sexual-assault charges against Dr. Tory Westbrook of Glastonbury, investigators alleged that Westbrook was illegally providing drugs to patients. Westbrook, who practiced at the Community Health Center's clinic in Clinton, was charged in July 2012 with selling illegal drugs.
In February, a former West Hartford pain doctor, Ven C. Hsu, was sentenced to five years probation and fined $20,000 on two counts of illegally prescribing controlled substances to patients. His license to practice medicine had been revoked by state regulators in July 2011. Two patients died of drug overdoses while under his care. He was arrested in July 2010 and charged with second-degree manslaughter and prescription drug fraud in the death of a 35-year-old patient. The manslaughter charge and 22 of the 24 drug counts filed against him were dismissed in court.