- Christine Stapleton Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Eighteen months ago, Boynton Beach Dr. Peter Katz took in an ex-patient — a homeless opioid addict. She overdosed in his home, dying later in the hospital. She was the fourth patient of his to die of an overdose in a two-year period, state health department documents show.
Law enforcement caught up with Katz about eight months ago, charging him with unlawful prescribing of an opioid after Katz wrote a prescription for an undercover officer during a sting operation.
But it wasn’t until early October that the Department of Health stopped Katz from practicing medicine, issuing an emergency suspension of his license.
In its 32-page emergency suspension order for Katz, the department detailed five years of “malpractice” and “wanton disregard” for his patients who were addicted to opioids. Dr. Katz’s practice as a medical doctor “constitutes an immediate, serious danger to the health, safety or welfare” of the public, the Oct. 3 order states.
During the seven months it took the health department to act, Katz kept busy.
For cash payments, Katz ordered urine tests for a sober home operator and gave her a prescription for buprenorphine — a medicine used to detox opioid addicts — “just in case” one of her residents relapsed, the order says.
Did law enforcement ask for delay?
Asked why it took seven months for a license suspension, a health department spokesman said the agencies investigating Katz asked them to hold off.
“Law enforcement informed the department of their plans to use undercover agents and asked that the department not move forward with plans to suspend Dr. Katz, which could have potentially compromised the criminal investigation,” said Brad Dalton, deputy press secretary.
He added that “there were no adverse impacts on any patients during this time.”
But three law enforcement agencies involved in the investigation denied making such a request.
“We did NOT ask the FDOH to delay pulling his license,” Teri Barbera, director of public information for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, said in an email. PBSO conducted an undercover drug buy at Katz’s office in April 2016 that resulted in Katz’s arrest a year later.
“It is quite the opposite,” Barbera said. “We pushed to have his license suspended but were told by FDOH our charges were STALE.”
A spokesperson for the Drug Enforcement Administration said it also did not ask for a delay. Katz’s suspension, however, “occurred in the normal time frame,” DEA public information officer Special Agent Anne-Judith Lambert wrote in an email.
The Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting Katz on drug charges, also did not ask the department to delay or suspend its administrative investigation of Katz, according to Chief Assistant State Attorney Al Johnson, who heads the Sober Home Task Force.
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The task force became involved in the Katz investigation in August after learning that Katz allegedly accepted cash from a sober home operator for writing orders for urine drug screens for addicts in treatment, which is detailed in the suspension order.
“DOH investigators worked closely with the Sober Homes Task Force investigators,” Johnson said. “In the end, our common goal is to ensure public safety through cooperation.”
Katz is not being charged with any criminal wrongdoing in the overdose deaths. The deaths and the fact that they were Katz’s patients were not known to the public until the health department suspended his license.
Overdose at doctor’s home
Much of the suspension order details the final days of the four addicts who overdosed and died. In 2014 Katz began treating a 27-year-old addict for ADHD and for her addiction. The woman told her mother she went to Katz because she could get prescription drugs from Katz for cash, according to the suspension order.
Homeless and still addicted in January 2016, Katz allowed the woman to stay at his home. She was not living with him but merely house-sitting for several days, Katz said. He also did not have sex with her, a claim made in the suspension order.
On Feb. 4, 2016, she was found on the floor in a bathroom at Katz’s home with a tourniquet, syringe and small bag of heroin and cocaine nearby. She died several days later.
While she cleaned out her daughter’s storage unit, the woman’s mother found stacks of prescription pads and drugs prescribed by Katz, according to the suspension order. Katz did not know how the woman obtained the prescription pads.
“I had maybe a few in my house,” Katz said. “She might have grabbed them.”
During the 2-1/2 years Katz treated Richard Unger, 36, for back pain and anxiety, Katz failed to keep medical records of the opioid and benzodiazepine he prescribed for Unger, who had an extensive history of drug abuse, the order stated.
After Unger’s death of a heroin overdose on Dec. 30, 2015 investigators found another doctor had been prescribing Unger buprenorphine, a drug used to wean addicts off opioids. Katz’s failure to review Unger’s records, the order said, “resulted in the continued prescription of contraindicated medications that were potentially life-threatening.”
Besides heroin, Unger’s autopsy found two drugs Katz had prescribed to him.
Unger was one of 216 people who died of a heroin-related overdose in 2015 and was one of the people The Palm Beach Post profiled as part of its series about the opioid epidemic, “Heroin: Killer of a Generation.”
Though all four patients were identified only with their initials in the suspension order, The Post, through police records and autopsy records, found that two of them were featured in The Post’s “Heroin” series. Katz also was mentioned in the records as the doctor treating them shortly before they died.
Kristin Curtis, 47, went to Katz for opioid dependence and was prescribed buprenorphine in the months before she died.
He also treated her for high blood pressure, though her records did not support such a diagnosis, the order said, and he treated her with another drug known to raise blood pressure. Curtis, who had a history of drug abuse, was a “high-risk patient,” according to the order, but Katz failed to monitor her.
On July 17, 2015, paramedics took Curtis to the hospital, suffering from nausea and vomiting for three days. She was pronounced dead on arrival.
The day before, Curtis had seen Katz and he prescribed medication, according to a police report. An autopsy showed she died from multiple drug intoxication.
Positive urine tests
Another patient, named “D.G.” in the suspension order, was found dead in a parked car on Dec. 27, 2015. The 33-year-old male died from complications of multiple drug intoxcation. Hydromorphone was in his system.
Katz had treated him for about 18 months for anxiety and ADHD, prescribing clonazepam and Adderall. However, D.G. had tested positive for opioids in urine tests more than once. In March 2015, D.G. admitted to Katz that he’d been using illicit painkillers.
Katz failed to follow up for eight months, the order said. When Katz did see D.G. in late November, he tested positive for oxycodone.
The order says Katz again failed to monitor this patient while he was taking a dangerous combination of opioids, sedatives and stimulants.
In April 2016, a DEA undercover officer met Katz at his Boynton Beach office after hours. When the agent asked for drugs using street slang, Katz said he was “not a pill pushing doctor.” Katz suggested the agent visit a rheumatologist and take Tylenol and an anti-inflammatory for pain.
The agent persisted and Katz — who is licensed to prescribe buprenorphine — reluctantly gave the agent a prescription for Norco, an opioid, without a performing an exam.
The sting resulted in Katz’s arrest on April 4 of this year on a charge of prescribing a drug that was not necessary. Later he was charged with one count of trafficking hydrocodone.
The DEA issued a statement a day after Katz’s arrest, saying it was “unconscionable” that a doctor authorized to prescribe drugs to wean addicts off opioids “would be part of the problem and not the solution.”
In August, while free on bond, Katz was paid by a sober home operator $40 for every urine drug test he ordered for addicts living in a sober home, according to investigators’ reports. No additional charges have been filed.
Katz denies all of the allegations laid out in the suspension order and arrest report. He claims he was set up and doesn’t know why.
“It’s a witch hunt and they are picking on the wrong guy,” Katz said. He said he kept medical records on his patients and performed appropriate exams. “As a result of this, I am not able to help people.”
Katz is fighting the criminal charges and suspension order and wants to reopen his medical practice.
“I’ve been very careful but no one is perfect,” Katz said. “I have no regrets with what I’ve done.”
Katz’s next court hearing is Feb. 9, 2018. His attorney, Michael Dutka, said the case is not a “run of the mill, garden variety drug trafficking case,” because it took so long for charges to be filed against Katz and so long to suspend his license.
“Some (details) could be favorable to the doctor and some favorable to the prosecution,” Dutka said.
Katz is one of three doctors arrested in the crackdown on corruption by the task force and an FBI-led federal investigation into corruption in Florida’s drug treatment industry. Doctors Joaquin Mendez and Donald Willems worked as medical directors at Kenny Chatman’s notorious Reflections Treatment Center. Chatman is serving a 27-year prison sentence.
Willems and Mendez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit health care fraud. Mendez was sentenced Tuesday to four years in federal prison.
Willems was sentenced to 10 years in prison and surrendered his medical license. He had been arrested in 2012 as part of a Broward pill mill investigation, but his license remained clear and active despite that arrest and the Chatman case arrest in December 2015. He offered to relinquish his license in March.