N.H. physician assistant found guilty

Man received more than $49K in ‘kickbacks’ in fentanyl scheme

NASHUA – As the powerful fentanyl opioid continues devastating New Hampshire communities, it is now common to see street dealers arrested and prosecuted for trafficking the drug.

Tuesday, however, the battle against fentanyl took a slightly new turn. U.S. Attorney Scott Murray said a federal jury found a former New Hampshire physician assistant guilty of receiving more than $49,000 worth of “kickbacks” from an unnamed pharmaceutical company for prescribing fentanyl spray.

“Corporate money should not be allowed to influence a patient’s medical decisions, especially when it comes to prescriptions for a powerful opioid drug like fentanyl. When providers are influenced by kickbacks, this can have tremendously bad consequences for patients,” Murray said.

Murray said a federal jury found 44-year-old Christopher Clough of Dover, New Hampshire, guilty on one count of conspiracy and seven counts of receiving kickbacks in relation to a federal health care program. Clough faces up to five years in prison on each conviction, while sentencing is set for March 29.

“Health care providers should make their treatment decisions based upon the needs of their patients, not their desire to pad their wallets,” Murray added.

Murray said during Clough’s employment as a physician assistant in 2013, a representative of an unnamed “drug manufacturer” approached him. Shortly thereafter, Clough became a “frequent prescriber” of a fentanyl spray, which had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to help cancer patients in excruciating pain.

Murray said that from June 2013 through fall 2014, Clough wrote more than 750 prescriptions for the fentanyl spray in New Hampshire, including more than 225 prescriptions for Medicare patients. The Medicare program paid in excess of $2.1 million for these prescriptions.

Trial testimony showed that during this same period, the pharmaceutical company paid Clough to serve as a speaker at more than 40 programs at a rate of about $1,000 per event.

“In many instances, the programs were merely sham events where Clough was paid to have dinner with employees or representatives of the pharmaceutical company,” Murray states.

Evidence at trial demonstrated Clough received in excess of $49,000 in payments from the unidentified drug manufacturer.

Murray said trial testimony showed Clough often started patients on high doses of the addictive fentanyl spray. He then rebuffed patients and their family members who said they no longer wanted the drug.

“What Mr. Clough is accused of doing in this case – receiving kickbacks in exchange for prescribing a powerful fentanyl spray – not only violated federal law, but put patients at risk and contributed to the opioid crisis,” Harold H. Shaw, special agent in charge of the FBI Boston Division, said.

“The reckless action by this former physician assistant was not only a crime but a betrayal of the public trust,” Drug Enforcement Administration Special Agent in Charge Brian Boyle added.

Officials could not immediately be reached for comment regarding the identity of the pharmaceutical firm who allegedly paid Clough.

There were also a few other fentanyl case developments reported from federal court on Tuesday. Murray said Steven Moore, 36, and Samantha Merrifield, 35, both of Plymouth, New Hampshire, pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy to distribute about 50 grams of fentanyl to an undercover police officer on Oct. 10. They are set for sentencing on March 27.

In another development, Murray said Joshua Smith, 31, of Haverhill, Massachusetts, pleaded guilty to participating in a conspiracy to distribute over 400 grams of fentanyl and to possessing a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime.

Smith is scheduled for sentencing March 28. He faces a mandatory term of 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10 million.

“Fentanyl distribution is a problem throughout the Granite State,” Murray added. “We will remain vigilant to ensure that law enforcement confronts drug dealers wherever they choose to engage in their illegal and dangerous trade.”