CLEVELAND - An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation has found that criminal probes into Ohio physicians do not automatically trigger license suspensions by the state agency regulating doctors.
The revelation came to light following criminal investigations into Ohio doctors suspected for either prescribing excessive quantities of pain killers or have been under investigation for selling pain pills.
Last February, an exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation revealed that an Akron doctor was under investigation by the Ohio Pharmacy Board for allegedly prescribing excessive quantities of pain killers. Dr. Adolph Harper, Jr. had his offices searched last November after pharmacy board investigators received complaints that he was overprescribing pain medications.
Harper has not been charged with a crime, but despite probable cause to search his office by pharmacy investigators, the Ohio Medical Board allowed Harper to continue to treat patients.
"I really believe that a lot of lives were at risk," said a recovering addict, who described her treatment by Dr. Harper.
A mother described her daughter's addiction saying "at the end, she was so out of it, I thought she was overdosing."
Another former patient remembers that even pharmacies were growing suspicious.
"You couldn't fill anything," said Melia Kelly, who says lines were sometimes out the door with patients waiting to fill prescriptions.
Yet despite search warrants, suspicious pharmacies and an insurance company that dropped Dr. Harper from Ohio's Medicaid program, the Ohio Board of Medicine allowed him to remain in business.
"I think that if pharmacies put a stop to filling his prescriptions--why didn't they (medical board) put a stop to him," Kelly said.
The Ohio Medical Board's executive director said even criminal investigations will not automatically trigger a license suspension.
"If the question is-- is there probable cause to enter in and determine whether or not not there may be a violation to act summarily against someone's license-- No," said Richard Whitehouse.
Harper continued to practice through November 2011 until May 2012 when his offices were searched again.
This time, the Federal Bureau of Investigation along with agents from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has probable cause to obtain their own search warrants.
Two weeks later, Harper "voluntarily" surrendered his license , though the medical board subsequently moved to go ahead and permanently revoke it. But some feel it may have been to late.
While Harper was not implicated, the mother of one of his longtime patients said her daughter died of a drug overdose.
"The pills she had, had anyone else taken those, they wouldn't be around either."
But Ohio consumers will never know just how many complaints the medical board may have received because those complaints are confidential under Ohio law.
The mother of one of Harper's patients says, "I think they should have stopped him-- closed him down long before now."
Another said she's "appalled."
"If that was their children, would they have reacted any faster?"
Our investigation found other doctors who were under criminal investigation did not have their licenses revoked.
For example, Dr. Paul Volkman was convicted of running of the nation's largest pill mills, where federal prosecutors say as many as 18 patients died as a result of over-prescribing pain killers. Yet it took the Ohio Medical Board almost three years to revoke Volkman's license .
Just this past summer, Dr. David Massie was charged with plotting to sell the painkiller oxycontin .
But five years ago, Ohio Medical Board disciplinary records show he first came to its attention for a substance abuse issue.
Records show Massie was so impaired from using the drug himself it "affected his ability to practice." Still, Massie's license was not revoked and earlier this year he received a one-year suspension .
Cleveland defense attorney Ian Friedman said his client is "presumed innocent and is cooperating with authorities."
"It's a very complex case that goes back years, with many, many issues," said Friedman. "The medical board has a lot to sift through."
Meanwhile, the federal probe into Harper continues.
Our investigation found that, in fact, the Ohio Medical Board can instantly suspend a doctor's license if there is evidence of public harm.
The board has supplied records it says show that it has acted to "summarily suspend" physicians licenses on four occasions in the last two years.