ILLEGAL CLINICS: Two Separate Crackdown Cases Advance
A defendant charged with selling prescription medications from a chain of illegal pharmacies she operated in the San Fernando Valley was sentenced yesterday to four years in prison, the Los Angeles Times reports. Santa Elba Hernandez pleaded guilty to two counts of possession of a controlled substance for sale, four co-defendants will serve time "ranging from six days to six months," and two more remain "at large," according to authorities. The defendants were charged last year after the Medical Board of California found evidence of the illegal activity. In March, a task force comprised of the Los Angeles County Health Department, Sheriff's Department and Police Department seized about $1 million in drugs from one of the stores -- "enough drugs to stock a Thrifty or a Save-On." The drugs included Valium, codeine syrup and penicillin, which must be prescribed, as well as drugs banned from sale in the U.S. due to their "life-threatening side-effects." Illegal pharmacies and store-front clinics, catering primarily to immigrants, have gained increasing law enforcement attention in recent months after well-publicized incidents such as a little girl's death this spring "shortly after she received an injection by an unlicensed practitioner at a gift shop in Tustin" (Blankstein, 5/21).
Pleading Not Guilty
Meanwhile, in Escondido, Dr. Miguel Castillo-Inzunza pleaded not guilty to 16 counts of unauthorized practice of medicine, including charges that he directed unlicensed staff to dispense medications not legal in the U.S. Three of the employees also face charges, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. Dr. Castillo said in an interview that the charges are "an effort to discriminate against his poor Hispanic patients, who are often unable to find doctors willing to treat them." His lawyer, Jance Weberman, said "Dr. Castillo is the only person saving [those patients] from the grave," noting that the doctor purchased drugs in bulk to make them more affordable. Castillo's clinic came under investigation by the California Medical Board in 1997 when a patient died of pneumonia after receiving three injections, one illegal, from an unlicensed staff member. The clinic was closed last week, when charges were filed. Castillo and two of his employees are free on $25,000 bail. A Medical Board hearing is scheduled for Monday to decide whether to suspend the doctor's license pending formal proceedings (Krueger, 5/21).