A Billings doctor who admitted illegally getting more than 2,000 painkiller pills told a federal judge Wednesday that she was grateful when federal Drug Enforcement Administration agents showed up at her office last September.
“I readily admitted to them I had a huge problem,” Dr. Ruchi M. Fitzgerald said during a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby.
Fitzgerald, 34, a family practitioner at St. Vincent Healthcare’s West Grand Family Medicine clinic, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of possessing a controlled substance, hydrocodone, which is a painkiller.
The doctor said she sought treatment the day after the DEA’s visit and has successfully completed a 90-day treatment program for hydrocodone addiction. In addition, she said, she has voluntarily agreed to be on lifelong monitoring through the Montana Professional Assistance Program, which helps professionals with addictions.
Fitzgerald said she had denied she had an addiction and was “too ashamed to seek help.”
“I’m so grateful to be here today. I am just truly sorry for the mistakes I made,” she told
Ostby sentenced Fitzgerald to five years of probation and ordered a $75,000 fine.
The judge followed sentencing recommendations in a plea agreement. She also gave Fitzgerald up to two years to pay the fine and granted her permission to go Cancun, Mexico, on Friday for a seven-day trip. Ostby ordered the doctor to provide contact information to her probation officer and to check in when she returns.
Fitzgerald faced a maximum of one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Fitzgerald’s attorney, Bruce Fain, declined to comment after the hearing.
Fain told the judge that Fitzgerald was a “very, very good physician.” Without identifying St. Vincent Healthcare, Fain said Dr. Michael Bush, who is St. Vincent’s chief medical officer, and other St. Vincent administrators “really want to get her back.”
Lynn Ratcliff, St. Vincent’s communications manager, said Fitzgerald is an employee at the West Grand clinic and is on a personal leave of absence. There was no specified time for her return, she said.
Fitzgerald’s medical license with the state Department of Labor and Industry is active and expires March 31, 2016.
The doctor told the judge that her DEA license to dispense prescriptions has been suspended but that she hoped to get it back in the future.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Zeno Baucus said Fitzgerald wrote 13 prescriptions and got 2,150 pills by using 11 names of purported patients.
Fitzgerald filled the prescriptions at eight pharmacies, court records said. The activity occurred from June until August 2013.
In late August, Baucus said, a DEA agent got a complaint from a pharmacist at Osco Pharmacy that Fitzgerald had filled a prescription for an alleged patient and had gone to the pharmacy to pick up the drug. She told the pharmacist that she was filling it for a “bedridden family member,” he said.
Surveillance video showed Fitzgerald getting the prescription, but the patient name Fitzgerald had provided was not her patient and the doctor was not authorized to fill the prescription, the prosecutor said.
Fitzgerald filled prescriptions for other purported patients at other pharmacies, and surveillance videos showed her picking up the drugs, court records said.
In pleading guilty, Fitzgerald said she started using hydrocodone through a legitimate prescription after she had some medical problems following the birth of her daughter. She was ashamed of her addiction, she said, and “hiding it was the worst thing I could have possibly done.”
While saying she would follow the plea agreement recommendations, Ostby said she had some concerns because Fitzgerald had previous problems with hydrocodone.
Fitzgerald responded she was “fully committed” to her recovery and that the plea deal was “a very big motivator.” The doctor also expressed her thanks to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the misdemeanor charge.
Ostby told Fitzgerald that she was wise to recognize that the case could have been more serious. Noting the problem of prescription drug abuse, the judge said Fitzgerald, as a doctor, was trusted to write prescriptions.
“There has to be accountability for that,” she said.