Richard Morgan, DO, spent eight years in prison after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy to distribute oxycodone. He experienced the struggle of addiction firsthand, but now he’s trying to get back the career he lost all those years ago.
So, what does it take to get your license back after serving time?
Saddled with Addiction
Morgan remembers the first day he took an opioid. The year was 1997. Morgan had his wisdom teeth removed as a medical student, but soon developed an abscess. His oral surgeon prescribed hydrocodone-acetaminophen. Morgan says the pill had a surprising effect.
“It was no longer about the pain,” he says. “I felt this intense euphoria. I really started enjoying how it made me feel.”
He started refilling his prescription regularly. After getting married in 1998, he says he was taking pills once a week. After that, the pills became a way to relieve stress. He remembers taking pills to relax after arguing with his wife about money or when he saw the World Trade Center towers collapse on September 11th, 2001.
During this time, he got opioids from the hospital where he worked as a resident. He would request pills from the pharmacy, claiming they were for a patient.
In 2002, he became board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation in New York. However, he then fell out of love with medicine all together. The practice where he worked started pressuring him to perform more procedures and order more tests to bring in more revenue. He later learned that the practice only accepted high-paying insurance plans.
“I started resenting the idea that I wasn’t practicing medicine the way I thought it was going to be,” he says. “It was more about the almighty dollar.”
That internal dissatisfaction only fed his addiction. He started taking pills to feel better about himself, often ransacking the tramadol samples pharmaceutical reps would leave around the office.
“I realized I was starting to take pills to boost my confidence,” Morgan says. After a while, he needed them just to practice medicine or get through social situations. “It just made me feel like I was a better person around them.”
His boss let him work at an urgent care clinic in Long Island, so he could utilize more of his skills. Morgan remembers one day when some teenagers came into the clinic. They put thousands of dollars on the table, asking him to prescribe opioids.
“If I do it this once, with one or two people, it should be okay, and I can control it,” Morgan told himself at the time, but he realizes that he was only doing it to fund his own addiction.
His usage increased over the years. He prescribed himself medication using 15 fake names, fake addresses, and fake dates of birth.
The Path to Recovery
Morgan says he started feeling drowsy in and out of work as he consumed more and more opioids. After a while, his family intervened. His sister, Victoria Bartasek, a pharmacist, started noticing a change in his behavior.
“It’s not going to be a good outcome for him if he doesn’t get the help he needs,” Bartasek remembers thinking. “And he’s going to lose what he worked for his entire life.”
At his peak, he was taking 15 80-mg oxycodone pills every morning all at once. He also took alprazolam to relieve symptoms of withdrawal if he went more than 24 hours without a pill.
He ended up in a rehab facility for professionals like himself, including lawyers and doctors. By August 2006, he was clean. He signed a monitoring contract with New York’s PHP (Partial Hospitalization Program), which allowed him to keep his license and practice medicine as long as agreed to six drug tests per month and regular therapy sessions.
But when he went back to work, the people that used to buy opioids from him started threatening him to get him to sell them drugs. Around the same time, one of the kids that used opioids gave them to his roommate, who ended up overdosing and dying. The authorities found a prescription bottle with Morgan’s name on it. A few days later, several Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers arrested him outside of his office.
While awaiting his sentence, the judge let him continue practicing medicine without the ability to prescribe, but he still had the urge to buy pills, including pseudoephedrine. He was caught buying more than he was allowed and arrested once again.
He was sentenced to 14 years in prison with three months’ probation, but only ended up serving eight; he was also forced to surrender his medical license.
He was released in April of 2017 but unable to practice medicine. He spent the next several years working several miscellaneous jobs, including working at a sports club and waiting tables at a local restaurant.
In 2018, he appeared on the Dr. Oz show to share his story. The appearance led to several invitations to talk about his experience. Adena Leder, DO, a neurologist and associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM), invited him back to speak two years in a row after seeing how much the students responded to his words. “If it could happen to him, it could happen to absolutely anyone,” Leder says about his addiction. He later got a part-time job teaching a class about doctor-patient relationships at the school. He talks regularly about his struggles with addiction, while telling students that it’s okay to ask for help.
Morgan is still in the New York PHP. He’s working with the program to get his license back. A few more months of negative drug tests should restore his license, a process that usually takes a year or longer.
Michael Brohman, a lawyer at the Chicago office of Roetzel & Andress, says it’s entirely possible for a doctor like Morgan to get his license back after serving time in prison. “I’ve seen lots of doctors, including my own clients, who have served time in jail for committing a federal offense, who’ve been able to get their license back after a number of years.”
If he gets to practice again, he says he’d like to work in the school’s free clinic. As for his addiction, Morgan admits he still feels the urge to use from time to time. “So many positive things are happening and they wouldn’t be happening if I ever picked up a pill,” he said.