INDIANAPOLIS — When Dr. William Hedrick walked out of his hearing before the state Medical Licensing Board in March he could breathe more easily.
For months, the pain doctor in Fort Wayne had battled accusations that his care of several patients who later died was substandard – even dangerous.
In the end, Hedrick beat back the worst of the charges and received minimal punishment – probation for two years with ethics training and a few other small stipulations.
But his fight is not over.
Since the state attorney general filed a complaint against Hedrick in December, four former patients – or family of a deceased patient – have filed medical malpractice suits against him. One other was filed in November before the allegations were made public.
One of those five has already been dismissed because of a two-year statute of limitations. And a civil suit involving several former colleagues of Hedrick’s was recently dismissed after being settled out of court.
But the four remaining malpractice cases are in their infancy and could take years to resolve.
The doctor – founder and president of the Centers for Pain Relief – didn’t return calls or emails seeking comment. There used to be more than a dozen locations of the Centers for Pain Relief in northern Indiana but that has dropped to about six.
In March Hedrick told the board that he had made changes in his practice involving better record-keeping and communication.
“I think we’re in a much better place to say anything like this is likely to never happen again,” he said then. “I ask the board to give me my license back and let me go prove that I’m not a risk.”
The original complaint against Hedrick alleged that he ignored clear evidence of addiction to and diversion of controlled substances. The case largely centered on opioid therapy – or the chronic use of strong painkillers or steroids to control pain through injections or prescriptions.
The Attorney General’s Office focused on the cases of seven deceased patients and tried unsuccessfully to tie his care to the deaths.
The Medical Licensing Board found that Hedrick breached standard of care in at least one case, failed to properly supervise his employees, and overused steroid injections in the spine.
The board cleared Hedrick of three other counts.
The five malpractice suits filed with the Indiana Department of Insurance mirror some of the state allegations. Here are summaries of the cases:
•Susan Schwartz filed in November 2012 on behalf of the estate of Angela K. Renner. The allegations are that Hedrick and another employee repeatedly prescribed increasing dosages of opiates even though it was documented in medical records and charts that Renner was an alcoholic. According to the file, Renner received a prescription in November 2010, took it while alcohol was in her system and died.
•Antoinette Austin-Bryant filed in December 2012 alleging that Hedrick was negligent and provided below standard of care. This case has been dismissed.
•Jammie Pulley filed a malpractice claim in January. She was a patient of Hedrick’s from the summer of 2006 through May 2011. Pulley claims she was given high levels of various narcotic and non-narcotic pain medications. During a trip to New York, she developed “acute and severe liver toxicity” that left her in critical condition. Pulley alleges that Hedrick failed to properly monitor injury to her liver associated with the medications she took. Also, the level and duration of the opioids and narcotics created an addiction. Overall Pulley claims severe liver injury, drug addiction and severe withdrawals.
•Zena Moore, wife of deceased husband Ocie White – filed suit in February. White was a patient for several years starting in 2008 until Feb. 2011. Moore alleges that Hedrick prescribed dangerous levels of pain medication, including high doses of Vicodin and Methadone. As a result, White developed cirrhosis, hepatitis and congestive heart failure due to liver disease. He died in February 2011. The suit alleges Hedrick should have known concurrent high doses present an “unjustified risk of serious bodily injury or death.” Hedrick also allegedly “created an avoidable addiction and dependency.”
•Paula Scott filed a malpractice claim in May. She was a patent being treated for chronic back pain for several years until October 2012. Hedrick and staff allegedly prescribed her excessive amounts of opioids causing her to become addicted.
“If someone has some bad publicity, it usually happens that they get malpractice filings,” said Tina Korty, general counsel for the Indiana Department of Insurance, where malpractice cases are handled. She said it takes, on average, five years for a malpractice suit to be resolved.
The first thing that happens in a malpractice claim, she said, is that an attorney is picked to chair a medical review panel. Then three doctors are chosen for the panel. Sometimes finding doctors to serve who don’t have professional conflicts takes months.
The panel chair doesn’t vote but provides guidance and legal advice.
The doctors hear evidence in the case and then issue an expert opinion on whether they believe the doctor in question breached standard of care. A lawsuit in civil court can be filed even without a positive finding by the group, which has become increasingly more common, Korty said. It is harder to prove, though.
To practice in Indiana doctors must participate in the Patients Compensation Fund, including having $250,000 worth of insurance. If a court judgment is greater than that amount, a claim can be submitted to the fund for up to $1 million.
Or the health care provider can settle for the $250,000 and the patient petitions for the additional damages up to $1 million. Of those petitions, the Department of Insurance settles about 95 percent of the time.
Overall, the fund pays out between $110 million and $120 million a year.
Korty said the state does provide malpractice insurance of last resort for physicians who can’t get insurance on the open market. There are about 150 doctors currently on that program.
Hedrick joined that program April 8 but has since found coverage elsewhere. His cancellation of state coverage is effective Aug. 22.