California doctor arrested for prescribing opioids to undercover agents

Hydrocodone opioid pills
A California doctor was arrested after he sold opioid prescriptions to undercover agents. (Getty/smartstock)

A 71-year-old California doctor was arrested last week after he allegedly prescribed opioids to four undercover agents.

The arrest of Sawtantra Kumar Chopra, M.D., of Modesto, was the result of a yearlong investigation involving both state and federal law enforcement agencies that began when pharmacies in the Sacramento area called in tips about his suspicious prescribing practices.

Chopra, a pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist, was arrested April 26 and charged with prescribing opioids to patients outside the usual course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose, according to an announcement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of California. A federal grand jury in Fresno brought a 22-count indictment against Chopra on April 19. He was arrested at his home in Modesto.

Free Daily Newsletter

Like this story? Subscribe to FierceHealthcare!

The healthcare sector remains in flux as policy, regulation, technology and trends shape the market. FierceHealthcare subscribers rely on our suite of newsletters as their must-read source for the latest news, analysis and data impacting their world. Sign up today to get healthcare news and updates delivered to your inbox and read on the go.

At a news conference, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and United States Attorney McGregor W. Scott announced Chopra’s arrest and provided details about the investigation.

It is not easy for prosecutors to make a case against a practicing doctor, Scott said. “We need to be sure we have a rock-solid case,” he said.

Multiple pharmacies called in tips that triggered the investigation of Chopra and culminated in the indictment, he said. Between March 2017 and March 2018, Chopra on 22 occasions prescribed prescription drugs to four undercover agents posing as patients. Those prescriptions included hydrocodone, Xanax and Promethazine mixed with codeine syrup.

The agents said they were patients whose doctors stopped prescribing opioid medications, Scott said. One of the agents told Chopra he needed painkillers because of an injury. At the next visit, the agent showed Chopra an X-ray of a different body part and the doctor still gave him a prescription, Scott said.

RELATED: Attorney General Jeff Sessions says government will increase scrutiny on providers who prescribe opioids

Chopra frequently would write a prescription without performing a medical examination, Scott said.

A map at the press conference showed patients traveled from as far as Sacramento, San Francisco and Merced to Chopra's practice in Modesto to get prescriptions. "As you can see from the map, he prescribed to patients far and wide,” Becerra said.

Becerra said the U.S. Justice Department has made it a priority to prosecute drug abuse cases and he said California law enforcement agencies will continue to prosecute such cases.

“Those who illegally prescribe drugs, including opioids, will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law," Becerra said.

Chopra was being held in the Fresno County jail and could face 20 years in federal prison, Scott said. The Drug Enforcement Administration in March suspended his right to prescribe medications.

Investigators are still working to establish the full scope of Chopra's opioid prescribing practices, Scott said.

RELATED: Another physician is indicted for opioid overdose deaths—and the DEA warns it's 'sending a message'

The investigation included numerous agencies including the California Department of Justice, Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud and Elder Abuse Drug Diversion Team, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the IRS Criminal Investigation.

In January, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the DEA would direct special agents, diversion investigators and intelligence research specialists to focus on prescribers and pharmacies that dispense unusual or disproportionate amounts of drugs. That crackdown resulted in the arrests of nearly 30 medical professionals in February and March.