A team of Island police officers arrested a Martha's Vineyard Hospital doctor at his office Tuesday on an outstanding warrant from the state of California which charges him with illegally prescribing powerful diet pills over the Internet.
Dr. Gerald C. Morris, 35, is accused of being part of an international drug scheme involving the illegal prescription of drugs, money laundering and identity theft.
Dr. Morris was arrested outside his family practice on Hospital Road around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday. Members of a task force made up of Vineyard Haven, Oak Bluffs and state police first spoke with the doctor inside his office, before arresting him in the parking lot.
He was charged with being a fugitive from justice.
Dr. Morris, a family doctor and internist, is wanted by the Ventura County California sheriff's department on felony charges of conspiracy to commit a crime, possession for sale of a controlled substance and unlawfully prescribing controlled substances.
Capt. Ron Nelson, public information officer for the Ventura County sheriff's department, said the warrant for Mr. Morris was first issued Aug. 22 as part of a sweeping drug investigation involving several suspects in different states and countries.
Dr. Morris was arraigned Wednesday in Edgartown district court and released after posting $750 cash bail, but he was called back into court yesterday for a bail hearing. Cape and Islands assistant district attorney Laura Marshard argued for a higher bail before district court Judge Donald Carpenter. California police asked for bail to be set at $100,000, Ms. Marshard said.
Dr. Morris's attorney, David Lawler of Hyannis, said his client was not a flight risk, and he asked that bail remain at $750.
"He's going to have to deal with this one way or the other if he wants to practice medicine again. He's not going anywhere," Mr. Lawler said.
Dressed in a blue suit and bow tie, Dr. Morris sat in the courtroom as the two attorneys debated the bail question. In the end Judge Carpenter set bail at $5,000.
Dr. Morris is due back in court Sept. 29. Ms. Marshard said two things can happen in the meantime: Dr. Morris can decide to waive extradition and face trial in Massachusetts, or officials in California can seek a governor's warrant that would force him to be tried in that state.
Ms. Marshard yesterday read a brief description of the charges against Dr. Morris, which portrayed the doctor as part of an international drug operation that illegally prescribed prescription drugs to thousands of people on a daily basis.
The three types of drugs sold were phentermine, tenuate, phendimetrazine; all are used as a short-term supplement to diet and exercise in the treatment of obesity. All three drugs have been shown to have medical risks, because they stimulate the central nervous system which increases the heart rate and blood pressure.
The prescription drug operation was headquartered in Costa Rica, where drug laws are less stringent and medications may be obtained more cheaply than in the United States. The operation hired a Florida man named Bill Harrington to recruit doctors from across the country, Ms. Marshard said.
Mr. Harrington reportedly placed an advertisement in the New England Journal of Medicine looking for doctors to participate in an Internet-based program that reviewed patient cases. Dr. Morris responded to the advertisement in March, and was paid $3 each time he reviewed a request, whether he agreed to the prescription or not, Ms. Marshard said.
According to court documents, Dr. Morris and several other doctors allegedly used their assigned Drug Enforcement Administration numbers to approve prescriptions online. The numbers are assigned to doctors certified to prescribe controlled substances under the Controlled Substances Act.
Dr. Morris told authorities he made an average of $4,000 a week in the ten weeks he worked for the company, although he was still owed $30,000, Ms. Marshard said.
The operation was penetrated by a special crimes unit in California that went undercover posing as customers and physicians willing to participate in the scheme. Police learned the operation was processing as many as 8,000 orders a day for diet pills.
Police first identified Dr. Morris after he was named in documents obtained from Mr. Harrington's Florida home, Ms. Marshard said.
Mr. Lawler described his client, a 1997 graduate of Dartmouth Medical School, as a young doctor struggling to pay his student loans while raising a family. He is married with two young children, and recently bought a home here on the Island, Mr. Lawler said.
Dr. Morris moved to the Island in September of 2003 after being hired at the hospital through an agency as a temporary physician. He was hired as a provisional active staff member in June of 2004. Dr. Morris has established deep connections in the community, Mr. Lawler said.
In addition to his private practice at the hospital, Dr. Morris is the medical director for Island Health Care, the Edgartown-based rural health clinic that provides health care for low-income and uninsured patients.
"He is very highly respected in the community," Mr. Lawler said.
Martha's Vineyard Hospital chief executive officer Tim Walsh said yesterday that the hospital is scrambling to provide medical coverage for some 1,500 patients that were under the care of Dr. Morris. That number does not include the patients he treated at the rural health clinic, Mr. Walsh said. "We're surprised at what has happened and we're really concerned - and right now we are just trying to shore up the coverage of the practice while all this gets sorted out," Mr. Walsh said.
Mr. Walsh said as an employee of the hospital Dr. Morris will likely face temporary suspension pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings.
Dedie Wieler, the chief quality officer for the Martha's Vineyard Hospital, said there had been no problems with Dr. Morris prior to Tuesday's arrest. She said he performed well on all his clinical evaluations and was well-liked by co-workers and patients.
"This came as a shock to everyone," Ms. Wieler said.
Ms. Wieler said all doctors are subject to a background check, although in the case of Dr. Morris, she said most of the screening was performed by the agency that helped recruit him and bring him to the Island.
Ms. Wieler said doctors go through a credential renewal process every two years, although the process focuses mostly on clinical evaluation. In light of the recent events, Ms. Wieler said she would consider extra background checks after an employee is hired.
"You can never have too much information," she said.