A Southern California doctor was sentenced to seven years in prison Wednesday for illegally selling tens of thousands of painkiller and sedative prescriptions to patients he never examined.
Dr. Nazar Al Bussam, 72, of Newport Beach, was ordered to no longer practice medicine and forfeit roughly $450,000 in personal funds prosecutors say he pocketed from his prescription-for-cash scheme. Al Bussam, who was remanded into custody, also must pay $125,000 fine.
Federal prosecutors argued that Al Bussam should be sent to prison for nearly 20 years to act as a deterrent for other physicians who think about flauting the law. However, U.S. District Judge S. James Otero said that was too harsh and showed Al Bussam some leniency given his age.
Otero did not take into account a report published by the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday that said three patient deaths have been linked to Al Bussam. Had the article played a factor, Al Bussam may have been given the sentence prosecutors recommended, Otero said.
Authorities say Al Bussam made more than $1 million a year by selling prescriptions for cash. He was worse than a street drug dealer, prosecutors said, because he abused his position as a doctor and knew the negative effects of prescription drugs when taken regularly or in large amounts.
Al Bussam typically raked in $3,000 per day in cash and was the top prescriber of controlled substances in California between January 2008 until his arrest last October, according to court documents. He would often give Percocet or the sedative Xanax to patients but would try to avoid prescribing the powerful painkiller Oxycontin because he thought it would draw the attention of law enforcement, records show.
Al Bussam pleaded guilty in July to 18 conspiracy and drug counts. On Wednesday, he apologized for his actions, saying he was filled with shame.
"I can only hope to be given some opportunity to redeem myself, so help me God," he said in court.
The Times article (http://lat.ms/n6h65i) said a review of coroner reports shows at least three patients died of drug overdoses.
Two others died _ one from an overdose and the other by falling off a cliff _ with drugs in their systems and pill bottles bearing Al Bussam's name in their possession.
Defense attorney Benjamin Gluck said in court that information in the article was "demonstrably wrong."
Several of Al Bussam's patients were later arrested for illegally selling drugs that he prescribed, authorities said.