Given second chance, doctor instead ‘poured poison’ into community by running pill mill

Hands clutching prison bars
An Alabama doctor was sentenced to 10 years in prision for running a pill mill.

After running afoul of the state licensing board, an Alabama internist had a chance to turn his life around. Instead, he took to running a pill mill and sold drugs to addicted patients, including at least one who died of a methadone overdose just days after receiving a prescription from the doctor.

Robert M. Ritchea, M.D, a 54-year-old doctor who practiced in Phenix City, was sentenced earlier this month to serve 10 years in prison for operating a pill mill through his medical practice and for money laundering, according to a statement from the Middle District of Alabama U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“In exchange for monthly cash payments, Dr. Ritchea poured poison into his community,” said acting U.S. Attorney A. Clark Morris.

At his sentencing, former patients testified that they made cash payments to Ritchea of at least $150 each month in exchange for office visits at his family medical practice and prescriptions to maintain their drug addiction. Prosecutors said he wrote prescriptions for controlled substances, including oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone and hydromorphone, knowing that his patients did not actually need the drugs prescribed. He then laundered the proceeds of his drug dealing to essentially run his own pharmacy, buying hydromorphone and hydrocodone directly from a drug manufacturer and distributing the pills from his medical practice, prosecutors said.

The sentencing brought to a close a doctor’s troubled history. Ritchea had faced a complaint in 2010 for submitting over $2.2 million in false claims to Medicare when he billed the federal agency for pain injections administered by an unlicensed medical assistant. Ritchea had been reprimanded by the Medical Licensure Commission of Alabama in 2008 for allowing that unlicensed medical assistant to treat patients, but after he complied with conditions, he was given a full unrestricted license to practice in 2011, according to a Medscape report. Instead of taking advantage of that fresh start, he began writing those prescriptions for addicted patients.

When he imposed the sentence, Judge W. Keith Watkins told Ritchea that his conduct was not far removed from that of a drug dealer operating on a street corner.