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Health, Science & Environment

Southern Ohio's 'Pill Mill Killer' chronicled in new book

OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vermont.
Toby Talbot
OxyContin pills are arranged for a photo at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vermont.

Former Ohio doctor Paul Volkman prescribed millions of doses of pain medicine in the mid-2000’s from his clinics in Portsmouth and Chillicothe.

At his trial in 2011, Volkman was found guilty of prescribing painkillers illegally, including several instances where patients died.

He was eventually sentenced to four consecutive life sentences in federal prison.

Freelance journalist Philip Eil writes about Volkman in his new book, Prescription for Pain: How A Once-Promising Doctor Became the “Pill Mill Killer.”

Eil will be at a book-signing event at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Book Loft of German Village.

Matthew: You're based out of Rhode Island, but I understand there's a personal connection that you have that drew you to this Ohio story.

Eil: It did, yes. My father, who is still a practicing physician in Rhode Island where I grew up and nearby Massachusetts, went to college and medical school with Dr. Paul Volkman. When I learned that this long lost old classmate of my dad's was accused—this was before his trial when I first heard about it—of these really horrifying, prescription drug-dealing crimes, I became fascinated and started digging, and that's a process that ultimately led me to this book.

Matthew: Can you give us the thumbnail version of Volkman's case and what led to him receiving such a lengthy sentence?

Eil: So there were dozens of doctors convicted of prescription drug dealing during the opioid epidemic across the country. And your listeners will know all too well that Ohio and Kentucky and West Virginia was a particularly hot spot for this activity.

Volkman is an interesting story. He was my entry point to this story, and I was fascinated by how a guy who showed so much early promise—he was a high school valedictorian. He got a federal scholarship to get an MD, PhD at the University of Chicago—could wind up in such a really seedy and sketchy and ultimately criminal situation.

He had an odd medical career. He started out in research and then kind of flamed out of that. He went into pediatrics, but that wasn't really paying the bills. He started working in emergency medicine, and over the course of about 20 years was sued a number of times for malpractice. There were a couple verdicts against him, a couple settlements. Ultimately, in the early 2000s, he found himself unable to get malpractice insurance. And that was really a pivotal moment in his career, where he answered an online ad for a cash-only, pain clinic down in southern Ohio, right near the Kentucky border.

Matthew: You conducted numerous interviews for this project, including with Volkman himself. What did he have to say for himself?

Eil: Well at a very basic level, he maintained then and still maintains now from federal prison that he's innocent. He says that he was a law-abiding, conscientious, compassionate doctor who was treating patients with severely painful ailments in an underserved area. And one of my jobs as a reporter was one, to listen to that story and to include that story throughout my book, but also to do some really thorough fact-checking of that, by seeing if what he described from his career matched up with records by, importantly, going down to southern Ohio and hearing what folks said down there. And there were very, very few people there who believed that this guy was legitimate.

Matthew: Some 20 odd years since a lot of these crimes took place, what's changed and how how deep is the pill mill problem today in this part of the country?

Eil: This wasn't just a crime story. It was also me kind of tracking a particular historical era. This was an area down in southern Ohio, one of the hardest hit anywhere in the country, due to prescription drugs. And, coincidentally, a couple weeks after Volkman's verdict, his conviction in 2011, the state legislature unanimously passed a bill that closed a lot of the loopholes that allowed these clinics to exist. It was colloquially called the "pill mill" bill. So I think a lot of these clinics are no longer able to operate because those legal loopholes that they exploited have since been closed.

Unfortunately, as we all know, the opioid epidemic continues, albeit in somewhat different forms. It went from prescription drugs to heroin to now fentanyl. And things are a little bit better down there, when I last went in 2022 for my last trip. But, it's still an area like so many, like even my home town and home state of Rhode Island that still struggles with addiction and overdose.

Health, Science & Environment pill mill killerPaul Volkman
Matthew Rand is the Morning Edition host for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides daily talk show.