The former Chief Executive Officer of Union General Hospital, along with two doctors associated with the hospital, have been sentenced to federal prison for crimes including illegally obtaining and dispensing pain medication.
John Michael “Mike” Gowder, of Nashville, Tennessee, the former CEO of Union General Hospital, has been sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Doctor James Heaton, of Blairsville, who operated a family practice clinic in Blairsville and worked as the Medical Director of the Nursing Home of the Hospital, faces six years in prison. Doctor David Gowder, of Blairsville, who was the Emergency Room Director of Union General and a former member of the Board of Directors, has been sentenced to one year, six months in prison.
According to a news release from the U.S. Attorney General’s Office for the Northern District of Georgia, Mike Gowder and Heaton were convicted on October 24, 2019, following a two-week jury trial on 102 counts relating to illegally prescribing and obtaining more than 15,000 doses of prescription pain medication. Heaton was convicted on another 27 counts of issuing false prescriptions to two female patients.
David Gowder pleaded guilty on March 15, 2019, to illegally distributing opiates outside of medical reasons and with no legitimate medical purpose.
“The abuse of prescription drugs and its related criminal activity is a danger in many of our communities - one we have made a central focus of our office,” said U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak. “Jurors, in this case, sent a clear message that the illicit prescribing and obtaining of controlled substances will not be tolerated.”
The release stated that David Gowder was arrested by the Union County Sheriff’s Office on April 11, 2015, after presenting two local pharmacies with three forged oxycodone prescriptions supposedly issued by a co-worker at Union General.
David Gowder admitted that he had become addicted to oxycodone, and investigators discovered that he had been routinely writing to local pharmacies for high quantity, high-dose opiate prescriptions since mid-2011. He had claimed that the prescriptions were for family members or other fictitious patients.
Investigators also discovered that hospital employees were filling many of the prescriptions at David Gowder’s direction, and he also stole pills from some of his patients at the hospital and other places.
During this same time, investigators found that Heaton was regularly prescribing increasing quantities of hydrocodone and oxycodone to Mike Gowder between 2012 and 2015. Heaton did not document the medical need for these prescriptions in Mike Gowder’s medical file, nor did he monitor the patient’s abuse of the medication.
Between the years of 2012 and 2015, Heaton prescribed Mike Gowder more than 15,000 hydrocodone and oxycodone pills and only recorded six of them in the patient file.
Mike Gowder started receiving illegal prescriptions from Heaton in 2012. He would fill the prescriptions at different pharmacies in order to conceal the quantities, even traveling outside of the state to pharmacies in North Carolina and Tennessee to fill multiple prescriptions a month.
The release stated that in some instances Heaton would provide multiple prescriptions to Mike Gowder in one visit, and then the recipient would travel to two different states to have the prescriptions filled.
In return for his prescriptions, Mike Gowder would use his position with the hospital to provide perks for Heaton such as a sleep study, increased compensation, and a position on the hospital’s Board of Directors.
Investigators also discovered that around this same time, Heaton was prescribing hydrocodone, oxycodone, and methadone to two female patients outside of medical necessity. Heaton also continuously ignored signs that these patients were abusing and/or addicted to the medications. Each of these medications is listed as controlled substances due to their high potential for addiction and abuse.
The case is still under investigation by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Union County (Georgia) Sheriff's Office, Cherokee County (North Carolina) Sheriff’s Office, Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, and Zell Miller Mountain Parkway Drug Task Force.
The case was brought as part of the Attorney General Office’s Operation SCOPE, Strategically Combatting Opioids through Prosecution and Enforcement. One purpose of this operation is to prosecute those who are illegally obtaining or distributing, painkillers.