Ohio Doctor Indicted For Illegally Prescribing Phentermine
The government says he prescribed Phentermine weight-loss pills illegally, handing out too many to the wrong people with the sole purpose of making money. The local doctor says everything he did was for the health of his patients.
Dr. David Velasquez admits he violated prescription laws, but he says he prescribed what his patients needed to get well.
“I think I have done my best for my patients because I work from my heart with passion and with love and care,” said Velasquez, who runs a private practice on Walnut Street in Coshocton. “What I have done is to help my patients.
“If this is a crime, then I deserve to go to jail. If it’s not a crime, then I should be free.”
Velasquez was indicted Dec. 17 on one count of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, one count of permitting drug abuse and 95 counts of trafficking in drugs. He pleaded not guilty Dec. 28, and his trial is scheduled to start July 29.
For months after the indictment, Velasquez remained mum to the media, but now, the 57-year-old internal medicine specialist is sharing his side of the story.
“I’m not afraid to say (what happened) because I’m not saying (anything) different to you than I have told the other people,” Velasquez said. “If (investigators) were to find something they were looking for, I wouldn’t be here. I would be in jail or I would have fled to my country.
Velasquez was born in El Salvador but has lived in Coshocton since 2005.
“But you know what? I’m innocent,” he said. “What I’m telling you today is what I can tell anybody — I have nothing to hide.”
The indictment alleges that, from January 2009, when he opened his Coshocton weight-loss clinic, through December 2012, Velasquez was illegally prescribing weight-loss medications to patients.
He would market commercially available pills as unique to his office, charging patients several hundred dollars upfront and then $160 for each subsequent visit, the indictment states.
Velasquez also is accused of prescribing drugs to patients with lower than the required body mass index; prescribing pills in combination with other controlled substances; prescribing them for longer than the 12 weeks allowed by Ohio law; and continuing to prescribe them after patients showed no signs of weight loss.
Throughout the investigation, which was launched in January 2011 by the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy and the Coshocton County Sheriff’s Office, Velasquez “repeatedly prescribed drugs to an undercover agent with a BMI of between 20 and 22,” the indictment states.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, normal weight includes people with BMIs between 18.4 and 24.9. People with BMIs between 25 and 29.9 are considered overweight, and people with BMIs greater than 30 are seen as obese.
Coshocton County Prosecutor Jason Given is handling the case with assistance from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. Both offices declined to comment further on a pending trial, but the indictment alleges that “the purpose of the illicit enterprise was to make as much money as possible for Dr. David Velasquez.”
Ask him whether he prescribed pills for longer than the 12 weeks allowed, and Velasquez simply replies: “Yes.” Ask whether he knew it was against the law, and again, “Yes.” But Velasquez said he was prescribing what his patients needed.
The law is incorrect, he said, and that’s what needs to change.
In Coshocton County, 32.5 percent of adults are obese, according to the Ohio Department of Health’s 2008 county profile, the most recent data available. That’s compared with only 26.3 percent statewide, data show, and for those obese patients, they need more than 12 weeks of treatment, Velasquez said.
“Medicine is an art,” he said. “You cannot say obesity is a three-month deal. It’s a complex problem. I’m not treating numbers or days, I’m treating human beings, and that can take months or years.”
With regard to the undercover agent, Velasquez said BMI is not a good indicator of obesity, and he claims the agent lied to him during her office visits. Patients who lie about their condition aren’t going to get proper treatment, he said.
“You will see more when I disclose the testimony (during trial),” he said. “I’m not trafficking drugs. I’m a doctor who has a good heart for patients.”
After the indictment, Velasquez lost many patients, he said, but some are starting to return. The charges don’t hurt him so much as the community, Velasquez said. At his office, he makes it a point to take patients other doctors won’t, he said, and if he loses his license, they might not have anywhere else to go.
“I’m blessed that I can see those patients who really need help,” he said. “I don’t (turn anybody away) because they have no insurance or have welfare. I take anybody. They need my help, and that’s what I’m here for.”
Velasquez said he hopes the charges against him will be dropped and legislators will change the law
to give doctors greater freedom in prescribing medications.
“There are other states like Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama who have made adjustments to the rules, so why not Ohio?” he asked. “I think it’s very ignorant from their part if they’re not doing that because they’re hurting the community.”
Velasquez was born in El Salvador on Christmas Day 1955, the youngest of 10 siblings.
According to him, his oldest brother, Osmin, was a leader in a major opposition union during the El Salvadorian civil war. As a result, the entire family was targeted, Velasquez said.
Osmin was eventually jailed and killed, but before he died, he told his family they would be persecuted, “even though we had nothing to do with what he did,” Velasquez said.
When he was 14, Velasquez and his then-24-year-old brother, Edis, set off for the American border.
“Our goal was to cross into the United States, believe it or not, illegally,” Velasquez said, because only people with money could get visas, and his family had none.
But when Velasquez and Edis reached the U.S.-Mexican border, the river was too high for Velasquez to cross, so he turned back. He finished high school in Mexico and then enrolled at Montemorelos University, selling encyclopedias to pay his way, he said.
with his medical degree in 1990. Two years later, he was able to legally move to the U.S., where, after several years of struggle and further schooling, he earned his board certification in internal medicine. He worked in Cleveland, Toledo, Lorain, Dayton, Bucyrus, Galion and Cincinnati before settling in Coshocton in 2005.
Pay it forward
Sitting in his Walnut Street office, Velasquez is quick to attribute at least part of his success to others. When he moved from Texas to Nebraska in the 1990s, he met Dr. Hugh Leigh, a family physician who put him through medical school in the U.S.
Overall, Leigh spent more than $200,000 on his behalf in 6½ years, Velasquez said. It turns out Leigh’s parents moved from Peru to the United States in the 1960s, and a family from El Salvador helped them, setting them up with a house, job and car, Velasquez said.
When Leigh’s father was dying, he told his son to help someone from El Salvador to repay the debt, Velasquez said.
“So you see, God works in many strange ways,” he said. “Being a physician for me is not just about me. It’s about what God’s mission (is) for me. … Dr. Leigh told me: ‘In the same way I did help you, I want you to help somebody.’ ”
To that end, Velasquez has opened a health clinic in El Salvador to help people without money or insurance, he said. That clinic has since spun off a second, with a staff of six doctors and six nurses rotating between the two. Velasquez helped train the doctors there, and he is in frequent communication, doing consultations via phone and email, he said.
In Coshocton, the mission is the same: to help people, Velasquez said. That’s what he was
doing with his weight-loss clinic, he said, and that’s what he hopes to continue to do in the future. He isn’t sure which way his legal struggles will fall, but regardless, he is grateful to his patients, colleagues and others who stuck by him, he said.
“I couldn’t say (anything other) than thank you for their support,” he said, “because, without them, I wouldn’t be here.”