‘So much damage.’ Appeals court refuses to throw out convictions of Kentucky doctor, wife

Why it’s so hard to break an opioid addiction

More than half a million people died between 2000 and 2015 from opioid use. In 2017 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the national opioid crisis a public health emergency.
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More than half a million people died between 2000 and 2015 from opioid use. In 2017 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared the national opioid crisis a public health emergency.

A federal appeals panel has upheld the conviction of a former Hazard doctor accused of improperly prescribing pain pills that added to the devastating drug problem in southeastern Kentucky.

James Alvin “Ace” Chaney, 54, is serving a 15-year sentence in the case. His wife, Lesa Chaney, 53, is serving six years and eight months. The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed their convictions Thursday.

Ace Chaney was the main physician at a clinic he owned in Hazard called Ace Clinique of Medicine, while his wife was president of the facility and helped run it.

Police began investigating the clinic after an anonymous caller reported Chaney was signing prescription slips for other employees to give patients while he was gone, meaning patients would get drug orders without being examined by Chaney that day.

The clinic was busy; police seized more than 7,200 patients files during a 2013 search, and prosecutors said in one court document that Medicare and Medicaid paid the clinic and Chaney more than $20 million over a period of about eight years.

A federal grand jury indicted Chaney in October 2014 on more than 250 charges that included improper prescribing, money laundering and health fraud, for allegedly billing taxpayer-funded health programs for unnecessary services such as urine drug tests.

Lesa Chaney and the clinic were indicted as well, though not all faced the same charges. All three were convicted in April 2016.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger West argued at a sentencing hearing that there was no way to calculate the damage that resulted from Chaney’s improper prescribing.

Chaney was responsible for distributing millions of pills through the clinic, West said.

“From the start to the finish, these defendants were driven to create as much profit as possible,” West said.

U.S. District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove ruled that not all of Chaney’s prescribing was illegitimate, but that much of it was.

Van Tatenhove said Chaney’s conduct “perpetuated so many addictions and so much damage to our community.”

Van Tatenhove ordered the Chaneys and the clinic to pay $12.7 million in restitution.

Chaney, his wife and the clinic appealed, arguing the convictions were tainted by a number of problems, including that the warrant police obtained for the initial search was unsound; that the evidence against them was not sufficient; that there was misconduct by jurors; and that Van Tatenhove failed to properly address their arguments for counting a lower amount of drugs in calculating their sentences.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected each of the arguments.

The panel said, for instance, that the jury’s conclusion that Chaney took part in improper prescribing was “well supported” by the evidence.

The opinion cited testimony from one patient of Chaney’s who said he was examined only once at the clinic and that Chaney increased his dosage of pain medication even after a drug screen showed he wasn’t using the pills properly. The man testified Chaney suggested he could sell his extra OxyContin, according to the ruling.

One alternate juror raised concerns about potential misconduct or lack of interest by others on the panel, such as two members discussing evidence about the Chaney’s house before they were supposed to start deliberating, and one saying she was so bored that she had counted the lights in the ceiling of the courtroom.

The appeals panel ruled that Van Tatenhove correctly concluded none of the concerns raised by the alternate juror warranted a new trial.

Ace Chaney’s attorney, Christy J. Love, said Thursday she was reviewing the decision and would decide later with Chaney whether to appeal further.

Chaney is serving his sentence at the federal prison in Ashland. His scheduled release date is May 2029.

Lesa Chaney, who is at the federal medical center prison in Lexington, is scheduled to be released in May 2022.

James Alvin “Ace” Chaney, left and Lesa L. Chaney. Bill Estep Photo courtesy of Franklin Couty Regional Jail