A Middle Tennessee doctor was arrested Friday for allegedly overprescribing opioids to patients he knew were abusing them to the point of overdosing.
He is the second medical professional to be prosecuted with opioid-related crimes in Clay County over the last month. More opioid prescriptions are dispensed per capita in the small county than anywhere else in Tennessee.
Gilbert Ghearing, 65, a family medicine and obstetrics doctor, allegedly wrote prescriptions for opioids and benzodiazepines for no justifiable purpose, leading at least two of his patients to overdose, said U.S. Magistrate Judge Alistair Newbern on Friday.
Ghearing was arrested at his practice in Celina Friday morning by federal agents and transported to Nashville to appear in court. His arrest comes just two days after Ghearing, while under investigation for the offenses, bought a one-way ticket to the Marshall islands, scheduled to leave on Sunday.
Doctor prescribe dangerous mix of medications
In one instance, Ghearing is accused of continuing to prescribe a patient opioids and benzodiazepines even after that patient overdosed and after the patient’s mother called Ghearing and told him the patient was abusing the medications.
The risky combination of opioids and benzodiazepines, which can cause suppressed breathing in patients, is welldocumented by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and CDC. Roughly onethird of overdoses involving opioids also involve benzodiazepines.
Ghearing is also accused of continuing to prescribe those two drugs to a second patient, despite having knowledge the patient was abusing them, had failed drug tests, stole drugs from other patients and had previously overdosed on prescription pills.
Ghearing’s practice in Celina, GhearingMD, sits between two pharmacies, Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies, that are the subjects of a federal lawsuit filed by Cochran’s office in February.
His practice website on May 17 says it will close “due to health reasons and subsequent retirement.” The website indicates the practice will officially close May 31.
Adding to a massive opioid crackdown
Ghearing’s indictment comes just weeks after Celina pharmacist John Polston, who worked at Dale Hollow Pharmacy next to Ghearing’s practice, was indicted on nearly two dozen violations of the Controlled Substances Act.
Ghearing’s office also shares a common wall with a third pharmacy, Anderson Hometown Pharmacy.
Friday’s arrest comes one month after Tennessee federal authorities arrested 32 defendants as part of a massive crackdown designed to combat the opioid crisis in criminal court. After those arrests, U.S. Attorney Don Cochran said investigations weren’t over and that his office would continue to pursue bad prescribers who are motivated by greed.
“For the very small number who are nothing more than drug dealers with stethoscopes, for those folks, we will come after you with every tool that we have available,” Cochran said.
Jay Steed, Ghearing’s attorney, revisited that statement on Friday, complaining in cour that Cochran had made “inflammatory statements” to the press that make it almost “impossible” for Ghearing and other medical professionals to get a fair trial.
Steed stressed that his client is a 30year military veteran with no criminal history.
“Frankly, the Ghearings are finding it difficult to understand why he has to be held in jail for several days,” Steed said.
Federal prosecutor Sarah Bogni argued in favor of holding Ghearing in detention until another hearing next week, noting that Ghearing closed his practice on Friday and had purchased a one-way ticket to the Marshall Islands, which are outside U.S. jurisdiction.
Newbern sided with Bogni, and Ghearing was taken into federal custody, where he’ll stay at least until another hearing is held next week to further discuss possible pre-trial conditions.
What Ghearing may face
The complaint alleges that between August 2016 and February 2019, Ghearing repeatedly violated the Controlled Substances Act by prescribing Schedule II and Schedule IV drugs, including benzodiazepines and opiates, outside the usual course of practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose.
If convicted, Ghearing faces up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine.
Steed said his client’s office was raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration in February. The DEA also raided Dale Hollow and Xpress pharmacies that month, a day after the federal government filed suit against them.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health’s website, Ghearing graduated from New York Medical College in 1983 and has no previous disciplinary actions against him in Tennessee.
The department’s website indicates Ghearing reached a settlement in a medical malpractice case in October 2010.
The settlement amount is described as “above average.”