WASHINGTON – A federal appeals court has upheld ex-Maryland physician Pietr Hitzig’s conviction on charges of illegally prescribing the diet drug combination fenfluramine and phentermine, better known as fen/phen.
A federal district court jury in Baltimore convicted Hitzig in 2001 on 32 counts of illegally dispensing fen/phen. Jurors also found Hitzig guilty on one count each of illegally dispensing oxycodone and illegally dispensing hydromorphone.
Court documents said prosecutors introduced evidence during the five-week trial that Hitzig had, among other actions, encouraged patients to share medications, used drugs and alcohol in their presence and shared confidential patient information with others.
Hitzig himself admitted that certain of his patients “had seriously negative outcomes” and “were not monitored aggressively enough.” He also acknowledged that he sometimes “interacted inappropriately” with some patients.
The jury sentenced Hitzig to 45 months in jail on each count, to be served concurrently, three years of supervised release and a $3,300 fine.
More than two years earlier, in February 1999, Hitzig had surrendered his medical license to the Maryland Board of Physician Quality Assurance on findings that he had engaged in professional and sexual misconduct with some of his patients. He went on to practice medicine in California until June 1999, court documents said.
Fen/phen was popular as a diet prescription in the 1990s. But the Food and Drug Administration asked the manufacturer of the drugs to remove them from the market in 1997, after a study from the Mayo Clinic implicated fen/phen in heart valve damage.
Court papers said that, by 1993, Hitzig’s practice was based solely on prescribing fen/phen, which he dispensed for diseases ranging from asthma to AIDS, claiming that the drug regimen would help balance dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. Published reports at the time said Hitzig described himself as “the father of fen/phen.”
In his appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Hitzig argued that the district court had erred in its instructions to the jury in his case. He also said that the lower court had established incorrect standards for guilt.
Hitzig claimed that the prosecution needed to show that he had acted both without a legitimate purpose and beyond the bounds of professional medical practice. But the trial court said the government only had to prove that either condition applied, and instructed the jury accordingly.
In an unpublished opinion Monday, a three-judge panel of the appeals court agreed with the district court and let Hitzig’s conviction stand.
Defense attorney Barry Coburn said he was “very disappointed” by the decision, but that the case will likely continue. He said he had not spoken to his client as of Tuesday, however.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it were Dr. Hitzig’s inclination to seek review of the decision, either from the appeals court or the Supreme Court,” Coburn said.
Coburn added that Hitzig “has maintained through the entirety of the process that he is not a criminal and that it was his intention to help the patients that he treated medically.”
The U.S. Attorney’s office did not return calls Tuesday for comment.