U.S. agents raid fen-phen doctor's offices Internet patients got prescriptions to diet pills before ban

October 01, 1997|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Patricia Meisol and Melody Simmons contributed to this article.

Federal agents raided the offices of a Timonium doctor who describes himself as an international pioneer in the controversial fen-phen weight-loss program yesterday, seizing computers and records relating to his solicitation of clients over the Internet.

Dr. Pietr Hitzig -- who has built a worldwide patient list through his "Fen-Phen Crisis Center" Web page -- was not charged with any crime. Authorities said they are examining Hitzig's records to determine how his business worked and how he prescribed diet drugs to patients, some of whom he never met.

Hitzig, angry over what he called a "grandstand play" by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, said last night that he did not think he violated any law by prescribing drugs to "desperate patients suffering excruciating pain."

He admitted he had not met or examined numerous clients, who he said are spread over five continents.

"These are not addictive medications. In my conscience, I have no problems at all," said Hitzig, who ardently defends the diet drugs -- even though they were banned two weeks ago by the federal Food and Drug Administration on the basis of studies linking them to heart damage.

"I thought I was doing what doctors are supposed to do, taking care of patients and making them well," Hitzig said.

The case could break new legal ground. Maryland's Board of Physician Quality Assurance recommends that doctors examine patients and have a medical record on them before prescribing drugs, but there is no state statute prohibiting such a practice.

"If he's violating law, he's violating federal law," said J. Michael Compton, the board's executive director.

Compton said the issue of prescribing medication to unseen patients is a gray area -- one that has not prompted any test case that he can recall. While Compton said sound medical practice dictates that doctors prescribe medicine to patients they have examined, he admitted there are occasional exceptions.

"Everyone has heard of the doctor who prescribes an emergency antibiotic," Compton said. "It happens all the time. But not on a grandiose scale as was the case with Dr. Hitzig."

Yesterday, at Hitzig's plush Timonium office on the eighth floor of the Timonium Corporate Center, DEA agents loaded cartons of files and documents onto hand trucks and carts, then drove them off in an unmarked white van. Agents also raided his office at his Monkton home and seized his computer.

A Justice Department official who asked not to be identified said the raid stems from suspicions that Hitzig "used the Internet to distribute fen-phen all over the place. Everybody on the Information Superhighway was contacting him."

But the official cautioned that there are no immediate plans to file charges against Hitzig. "We want to examine all the documents, and there are a lot of them," the official said.

Hitzig maintained that he doesn't believe a crime has been committed. "I don't think there's any statutes about it," he said. "I did not know that the federal government has any statutes. I thought I was helping people to the best of my ability."

On Hitzig's Web site, fen-phen is described as a drug capable of treating weight loss, Persian Gulf war syndrome, drug addiction and alcoholism.

"Currently, we are successfully treating patients in 33 states, on five continents, within five provinces of Canada, and in eight European countries," Hitzig's Web page says. The page has not been updated since fen-phen was banned by the FDA Sept. 15.

Hitzig is described in the page as "the father of the fen-phen protocol" and blames health problems associated with the drug to inexperienced doctors who have given incorrect dosages.

The doctor said last night that he believed the raid was the work of publicity-hungry authorities reacting to the recent criticism of fen-phen.

"It could have been done in a lot easier ways, more polite ways, and less damaging ways," said Hitzig, who added that he did not know what effect yesterday's events will have on his business. "I'm sorry they have to kill the messenger. You go out and find the answer to drug addiction and this is how you get repaid."

Hitzig was recently named as a defendant in a class action lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court filed by fen-phen patients who claimed they developed heart problems after taking the diet pills.

In the lawsuit, a woman said Hitzig prescribed fen-phen to her in August 1993, providing her with "unlimited refills of the drugs."

The lawsuit said that Hitzig appeared to have "a special relationship with the pharmacy" in Catonsville that filled her prescription; the woman claimed that when a refill was needed, she called the pharmacy and the prescription would be promptly mailed to her home.

Hitzig claims in his Web page that his crisis center has treated "thousands of patients without significant side effects" in the last four years. His program, he claims, is tailored to the unique biological and genetic profile of the patient to eliminate risks.

He said that he plans to be open today, but is unsure how much business he will be able to accomplish without his computers and records.

Pub Date: 10/01/97

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