The Shadow Practice Part 5: Drug pushers running this clinic were far from saints

Published on
March 29, 2010

Low on cash, his reputation shredded by patient complaints about botched plastic surgeries, Dr. Harrell Robinson must have felt he had a guardian angel when Magdalena Annan approached him.

Annan ran the beatific sounding Madre Maria Ines Teresa Health Center at 1523 Broadway Street in Santa Ana, which targeted Southern California immigrants.

According to the Federal Register's Nov. 24, 2009 edition, her proposal was simple. Robinson would sign on as the clinic's medical director – and sole medical professional – and the clinic would pay him $10,000 a month.

Robinson did not have to work out of the clinics, did not have to see any patients, did not have to order any tests or write any prescriptions. He only had to do one thing.

He had to use his U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency registration to buy prescription narcotics like Vicodin, also known as hydrocodone, and pass them on to the clinic.

Between February that year and October 2008, Robinson bought an estimated 613,000 painkillers for the clinic without ever examining any of the patients for which the drugs were ostensibly intended, according to the DEA.

Legitimate patients in pain? Addicts hungry for the next high? That distinction was not Robinson's concern. He was basically a highly paid bag man. In the Federal Register, the DEA described the drug exchange at Robinson's Anaheim Hills office, the same office where Dr. Andrew Rutland, the doctor now accused in the death of Chinese immigrant Ying Chen, worked:

A box was delivered at 10:12 a.m., and [Robinson] arrived at his office by car at approximately 12:15 p.m. At around 2:15 p.m., [Robinson] placed the box in his car and returned to the office; at about 4:30 p.m., Respondent again left the office and drove to a bank and a restaurant. In the restaurant parking lot, [Robinson] parked next to a black Humvee that investigators identified as belonging to Ms. Annan. [Robinson] moved three boxes from his car to the Humvee and talked for about fifteen minutes with Ms. Annan in her car; Respondent then returned to his car and drove away The investigators followed Ms. Annan to her home in Santa Ana, but the boxes remained in her car until the surveillance terminated at 6:30 p.m. The DI testified that he had opened this box before it was delivered and that it contained bottles of hydrocodone.

Hummers, in case you don't own one, cost between $30,000 and $45,000. An expensive ride for a woman running a charity clinic named after a nun known for living in austerity and devoted to serving the poor.

Robinson wasn't doing badly for himself either. He was driving a Mercedes-Benz.

When the DEA caught up with him, Robinson had a simple reply, according to the testimony of one of the investigator's in the case. Robinson said that his "status as a physician allowed him to order hydrocodone and that his orders were acceptable because the drugs were going to poor people."

How magnanimous of him. He was helping the poor by giving them a steady supply of cheap, addictive drugs. And apparently these poor people were in a lot of pain.

Robinson "was the sixth largest purchaser of hydrocodone combination products among California physicians for the year 2007."

That's what first caught the DEA's attention.

Robinson bought most of the painkillers from the wholesaler Harvard Drug Group. And, in case you thought he was also buying antibiotics and diabetes medications for those immigrant patients, the DEA discovered that "hydrocodone combination products were the sole products that were purchased from Harvard."

Trouble was, Robinson couldn't keep up with the demand. Ever entrepreneurial, he went looking for partners.

Next: Doctors willing to sell their souls – and their medical licenses – for $1,000 a month

Related Posts:

The Shadow Practice Part 1: Disciplined doctor found an exile community in immigrant health care

The Shadow Practice Part 2: New owners can't exorcise ghosts of clinic's past

The Shadow Practice Part 3: Immigrant clinic had deep roots in deception

The Shadow Practice Part 4: Doc begs patients for loans

The Shadow Practice Part 6: Doctors sell their souls, and their licenses, on the cheap

The Shadow Practice Part 7: Punishment for drug-dealing doctors more severe in Arizona

The Shadow Practice Part 8: How one California clinic became a magnet for bad medicine

The Shadow Practice, Part 9: Woman dies during cosmetic surgeries at unlicensed clinic

The Shadow Practice, Part 10: Coroner rules mistakes that killed patient a "therapeutic misadventure"

California governor and medical board should stand accused in patient's death