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Drug Investigation Links Santa Barbara Doctor’s Prescriptions to 11 Patient Deaths

Affidavit describes dozens of suspect cases involving Dr. Julio Diaz and prescription medication practices over a period of several years

An affidavit provided to Noozhawk after Wednesday’s arrest of a Santa Barbara family practice physician includes sordid allegations that his drug-prescribing habits are related to nearly a dozen deaths among his patients and hundreds of visits to local emergency rooms.

Dr. Julio Diaz, 63, of Goleta, faces a federal criminal complaint of distribution of controlled substances outside the scope of professional practice and without legitimate medical purpose.

                                Prescription for Abuse  |  Complete Series Index  |

He was arrested Wednesday morning at his home in the 400 block of Cannon Green Drive, and Drug Enforcement Administration agents then drove him to his office at the Family Care Clinic, 510 N. Milpas St. There, they carted away records, computer hard drives and prescription medications.

Diaz is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana. If convicted of the charge of illegal distribution of a controlled substance by a medical practitioner, he faces up to 20 years in federal prison.

After the arrest, Noozhawk received a 75-page affidavit from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. The document details the lengthy investigation by the DEA, Santa Barbara police and the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department.

Dozens of cases are outlined — including 11 drug-related patient deaths — and they paint a picture of a doctor who allegedly prescribed narcotics for virtually any complaint.

According to the affidavit, “profound” doses of drugs such as OxyContin, Fentanyl and Dilaudid were prescribed for common physical conditions including back pain and menstrual cramps. The document says some of the patients required emergency room visits shortly after leaving Diaz’s office.

A licensed vocational nurse who worked in Diaz’s office told the DEA that “75 percent” of patients paid with cash, and Diaz charged $120 per visit and $180 per pain management visit. Diaz’s wife, Socorro, worked in the clinic and, the employee said in the affidavit, she would tell him to write prescriptions for people and then hand them to the patient in the lobby, to family members or to friends.

Physicians associated with Cottage Health System, which operates Santa Barbara and Goleta Valley Cottage hospitals, had complained to the Medical Board of California for years, and the affidavit describes a letter they had sent, requesting that the board take action.

The doctors described one woman with menstrual cramps who allegedly received from Diaz 120 OxyContin 40-milligram tablets, 150 methadone 10-milligram tablets, 120 tablets of Fentanyl and 120 tablets of Xanax.

“We have previously raised concerns with the medical board regarding Diaz’s prescribing practices but are corresponding again because we continue to see patients who have become addicted under his care,” the letter read.

In 2009, a parent concerned for his 20-year-old son sent the board a letter in which he describes sitting with his son in the emergency room after an overdose. He said investigators discovered that Diaz had prescribed the young man more than 4,000 pills in less than a year, “an average of 22 predominantly Schedule II opiates a day.”

When a state medical board investigator paid an unannounced visit to the clinic a year later, the affidavit says she witnessed that demand firsthand. While the clinic was closed for the lunch hour, the investigator said she saw a man in his early 20s begin banging on the door yelling, “I need to see the doctor. I need pills!”

The report goes even further and describes patients who allegedly gave Diaz sexual favors in exchange for drugs.

According to the report, “Diaz’s ‘favorite patient’ was, according to office staff, a known prostitute. (The employee) saw C.A. (the woman) sit on Diaz’s lap during her appointment, other staff told her they saw them kissing, and C.A. was the last patient of the day and Diaz would send (the employee) home, saying he could take care of C.A ... C.A. always took one of her children into the restroom when she needed to provide a urinalysis.”

Also in the report are details of patient deaths allegedly related to Diaz, ranging from multiple drug ingestion to complications from chronic drug abuse. The patients, who ranged in age between their early 20s and 50s, died between 2006 and 2011. According to the affidavit, all list Diaz as their primary physician, and some died just a few days after filling large prescriptions from him.

The report says Diaz prescribed 2,087 pills to one 27-year-old in the six weeks before his or her death and the bottles, mostly empty or nearly empty, were found on the scene by first responders. The individual had injected the prescription medication, and police found the bottles in the bedroom and car.

“Due to the large number of pills this decedent was taking, it is apparent that an overdose could very easily take place,” a deputy coroner said about one 52-year-old’s death in 2007.

A 35-year-old with a history of drug abuse had a concentration of Dilaudid in her system that was more than 10 times a therapeutic dose.

Diaz couldn’t prescribe such large amounts without pharmacists becoming suspicious, and some Santa Barbara-area pharmacies have “blacklisted” him and refuse to fill his prescriptions.

CVS stopped filling his narcotic prescriptions in 2008, although the pharmacy continued filling “maintenance medications” such as Lipitor, a cholesterol drug.

According to the affidavit, patients have filled Diaz’s prescriptions in 48 California cities outside Santa Barbara County and even in other states.

Diaz’s prescriptions allegedly included refills early, often and for large amounts. These often went unnoticed for long periods of time, the affidavit said.

In August 2010, a patient attempted to fill large amounts of buprenorphine, Norco and Xanax in Auburn in Placer County east of Sacramento. A pharmacist reported the incident to the DEA, relayed her concern to Diaz and refused to fill the prescriptions, only to learn later that the patient had obtained refills as far away as Utah and North Carolina.

“The early refills were not flagged because the patient did not have regular insurance or a prescription program that cross-referenced refills among different pharmacies,” the affidavit states.

Diaz gave some pills out directly from the clinic, and DEA agents cleared out the drugs when they raided his office Wednesday afternoon.

The special agent who wrote the report also found a record of the narcotics Diaz ordered directly to his office, which included more than 20,000 dosage units of hydrocodone each year since 2008.

While DEA agents walked a handcuffed Diaz to a black SUV on Wednesday, law enforcement agents continued carrying boxes of confiscated material from the clinic.

Diaz has been a licensed member of the state medical board since 1981 and has no public actions against him. Only formal actions taken by the medical board are reported on its Web site, however, leaving little information available to consumers.

During research for Noozhawk’s Prescription for Abuse series, multiple sources — ranging from pharmacists, emergency-room doctors, families and law enforcement — alleged that Diaz consistently overprescribes pain medication, among other things.

Santa Barbara County civil court documents reveal a medical malpractice case and another case of negligence, both of which Diaz settled.

                                Prescription for Abuse  |  Complete Series Index  |

Noozhawk staff writers Lara Cooper and Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) and .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), respectively. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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