In a city plagued by an opioid addiction crisis, the large storefront office at Broad and Wolf Streets was one of South Philadelphia’s most notorious sources for an easy score.
Drug users from as far away as Cape May would stand in lines – sometimes 100 deep – outside the now-defunct National Association for Substance Abuse-Prevention and Treatment for a chance to see a doctor. Street level drug dealers would send in recruits, looking for Suboxone and Klonopin pills that could be resold on the streets or traded for stronger drugs.
And the man at the top of the clinic’s marquee – Dr. Alan Summers – welcomed them all unquestioningly, amassing $5 million over 13 years, one $50 to $200 prescription at a time.
But on Tuesday, a federal judge ordered Summers, 79, of Ambler, to forfeit nearly all of that fortune and to spend the next four years in prison for running what prosecutors have described as the source of “more false prescriptions than perhaps any other clinic in the history” of Eastern Pennsylvania.
“This was drug dealing, plain and simple, for money,” U.S. District Judge Lawrence F. Stengel said. “It was a well-planned, well-thought-out, absolutely cynical use of a medical license to the detriment of so many people who didn’t know any better and whose lives were ultimately affected for the bad.”
For his part, Summers – a psychiatrist by training who pleaded guilty last year to more than 17 federal counts including conspiracy, health care fraud, and drug distribution – insisted that he founded his clinic to help his patients overcome addiction.
“I was more shocked than anyone to realize that I had become a criminal,” he told Stengel in court Tuesday. “I put patients in harm’s way and deluded myself into thinking that that wasn’t happening.”
But prosecutors maintained that Summers’ slide into crime was no accident, but a conscious choice — a situation they have encountered with alarming regularity in their efforts to stem the widening epidemic of opiate abuse.
“We see a recurring problem in this district,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Livermore said. “Doctors who are advancing in age, who elect to sell controlled substances. He is looking at his retirement account, and he’s saying, ‘I don’t have enough money in there to retire on.’ They make a conscious decision to sell controlled substances.”
Summers’ prosecution is the first the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Philadelphia has brought involving Suboxone, an increasingly popular treatment for heroin addiction.
Still, Summers stood out, not only for the volume of drugs his clinic put onto the streets — as many as 2.5 million doses each of Suboxone and Klonopin between 2001 and 2014 — but also for the way he left no doubt about his intentions.
In a document that agents later seized from his computer titled “Ten Year Financial Plan,” Summers laid out his goal to leave his wife and stepdaughter $5 million by the time he retired and bemoaned the fact that at his current rate of savings, he would reach only one-tenth of that sum.
“The conservative approach is a guaranteed loser,” he wrote. He detailed instead a plan he described as the “aggressive approach” based on getting hundreds more patients to come to his clinic through aggressive marketing and writing prescriptions as fast as possible.
‘A crack house’
By 2013, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had caught on to Summers’ scheme. Over three years, investigators sent at least four undercover officers and cooperating patients into his clinic, according to court filings.
One woman – a pharmacist who had become addicted to oxycodone after it was prescribed to treat legitimate medical conditions – compared Summers’ practice to “a crack house.”
She told agents that patients, many clearly high on heroin at the time, lined up for mass therapy sessions during which members of the doctor’s staff read boilerplate speeches on addiction. Afterward, Summers or other doctors who worked for him would herd them into conference rooms for cursory examinations that often lasted less than two minutes.
At the end, every patient received a preprinted prescription for Suboxone and Klonopin in doses that varied based on how much they were willing to pay — $50 for a week’s supply, $200 for a month’s.
“There was no medicine being practiced,” Livermore said Tuesday. “This was a clinic that was all about money. It was not about medicine.”
Some witnesses told investigators that a healthy trade in Suboxone-positive urine samples sprung up in Summers’ waiting room among patients who were not taking the drugs the doctor had prescribed but selling them on the streets instead. They said that lasted until they realized that Summers did not care whether their urine tests showed they were following his prescription recommendations.
When one doctor working at his clinic confronted Summers with evidence of this trade, Summers, according to court filings, flatly replied: “I am not the DEA.”
In court Tuesday, Summers showed little reaction as Stengel announced his decision to send him to prison. His wife’s eyes were hidden behind sunglasses as she sat in the courtroom’s front row.
Stengel also ordered him to forfeit $4.6 million and pay $14,000 in restitution to health insurance providers.
And moments before the judge’s decision was read, Summers’ sister-in-law Anita Steinberg, a family physician from Ohio, said that despite his crimes, she would remember all the people he had helped during his three-decade career.
“Physicians, even ones as intelligent as Dr. Summers, commit crimes,” Steinberg said. “These crimes, as severe as they are, do not define this man.”