Over a year has passed since Dr. Paul Volkman was convicted in U.S. district court in Cincinnati for the overdose deaths of four former patients. The verdict was the capstone on a case involving numerous patient deaths in the Portsmouth area, millions of dollars in profits, staggering amounts of prescription medications, and at its center, a man who had once earned a federally funded M.D./Ph.D scholarship from the University of Chicago.
Volkman and a small group of loyalists saw it as a grave miscarriage of justice — another high-profile loss for the pain patient advocacy community.
Many southern Ohio citizens, meanwhile, saw it as an historic victory in the region’s fight against prescription drug abuse. Unfortunately, we, the general public, have not been able to look past these sound bites calling Volkman a “scapegoat” or a “dealer of death.”
The mountain of evidence presented to the jury over the course of the nine-week trial — photographs, prescriptions, autopsy reports, emails, and much more — is currently sealed off from public view. A year after the Volkman verdict, yellow “crime scene” tape remains roped around this case, preventing the public from learning what truly happened.
Because there are medical records and insurance and tax documents involved, the evidence in this case is admittedly more publication-sensitive than the average drug-dealing or murder case. And, indeed, the latest response I received from the Clerk of the Court of Appeals cited an ongoing Department of Justice “review of the materials” as the reason for the delay.
But isn’t a year long enough? The federal government has shown an interest in publishing exhibits from notable cases, even when there is sensitive information involved. The U.S. Court in the Eastern District of Virginia, for example, hosts a website where 1,195 of the exhibits from the 9/11 conspiracy trial, “United States vs. Zacarias Moussaoui,” are free and viewable for the public. Seven of the exhibits “that are classified or otherwise remain under seal” have been withheld, the site reports.
If Volkman’s conviction was as historic as prosecutors say, why can’t they do the same?
We, as a society, are still figuring out how to deal with the problems surrounding pain and prescription drugs. Last summer, the Institute of Medicine published a report claiming that 116 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. On the other end of the issue, the New York Times recently reported, “As prescription drug abuse ravages communities across the country, doctors are confronting an emerging challenge: newborns dependent on painkillers.”
This is unfortunately a familiar trend to Scioto County residents. In Ohio, the ink has barely dried on House Bill 93, a law designed to shut down “pill mills” and more closely regulate the prescription of narcotics. In April, the Department of Justice issued an indictment that accused six Ohio doctors and one pain clinic owner of illegal prescription drug trafficking.
It is these issues – pain, prescription drugs, “pill mills,” and the line between medicine and drug dealing – that were discussed inside the courtroom during Dr. Volkman’s trial. By withholding the transcripts and evidence from this case, we are being denied an opportunity for conversation about vital social issues.
My father went to college and medical school with Volkman in the 1960s and ‘70s and, when I learned about the case three years ago, I became intensely curious. I have since interviewed more than a hundred people with perspectives on the case: doctors, lawyers, police officers, pain patients, addiction counselors, family members of Volkman’s former patients, and Volkman, himself. I conducted this research, at first, for a graduate school thesis, and, now, for a nonfiction book about the case.
Many people in Portsmouth — whether they enjoy speaking with me or see me as the annoying kid who asks a lot of questions — have become familiar with my face. In the course of my research, I have seen first-hand what a pain management doctor at the University of Kentucky told me in 2010: That the subjects of pain, addiction, and opiate medications trigger emotional reactions beyond most medical issues.
“I equate it to abortion,” he said. “You get people taking these polarized stances.”
I have long believed that the evidence — the undisputed, undiluted facts — might be an antidote to these polarized stances. But this evidence remains out of reach.
I am grateful that I have not dealt with chronic pain or addiction in my life. I come to this story with nothing more than curiosity. But as a young reporter who loves the United States and the ideals it stand for, including public access to court records, the government’s current withholding of public information still hurts.
Philip Eil is a freelance writer and adjunct college lecturer in Providence, R.I. He can be reached at email@example.com.