A yearlong undercover operation by drug enforcement agents led to the arrest of a Modesto physician Thursday morning on charges he illegally prescribed opioids to patients without a legitimate medical purpose.
On April 19, a federal grand jury delivered a 22-count indictment against Sawtantra Kumar Chopra, who has an office on Spanos Court and whose business card says he practices internal medicine and treats pulmonary diseases.
Between March 2017 and March 2018, the indictment alleges, Chopra on multiple occasions sold for cash prescriptions for large quantities of highly addictive opioids, including Norco (hydrocodone) and Xanax (alprazolam). The indictment and arrest were announced at a Sacramento news conference Thursday afternoon by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra and U.S. Attorney McGregor W. Scott .
Scott said that if convicted, Chopra faces a sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
The investigation determined that Chopra prescribed the opioids to patients "far and wide," Becerra said, standing by a map that showed people would come to his Modesto office from as far away as the San Francisco Bay Area and Yuba City. "This is not a small case," Scott said.
The case was triggered because several pharmacies in the Sacramento area contacted the state's Bureau of Medi-Cal Fraud & Elder Abuse with their suspicions, Scott said.
Four undercover agents represented themselves as patients, he and Becerra said. On 14 occasions, the agents were able to buy hydrocodone from Chopra, they said, on six occasions were able to buy alprazolam, and two other times obtained Promethazine (cough syrup with codeine). The drugs have legitimate medical uses, the authorities said, but improperly prescribed and used, they can result in overdoses and death.
“There is now an epic crisis of deadly opioid abuse and overuse," Scott said at the news conference. "In 2016, roughly 11.5 million people in the United States misused prescription opioids. That same year, 116 on average died every day from opioid-related drug overdoses. And in 2017, the acting secretary of Health and Human Services declared the national opioid abuse epidemic a public health emergency."
He gave an example of how agents were prescribed the opioids. An agent reported that his elbow hurt, and was given a prescription without a physical exam to confirm an ailment. At a later appointment, the agent brought the doctor an X-ray of a different body part, completely healthy, and Chopra still prescribed opioids for the elbow, Scott said.
In early March, the DEA suspended the doctor's legal right to issue prescriptions, Scott said. "It is not a light or easily taken step to indict a medically practicing doctor," he said, adding that investigators had to make sure they had a rock-solid case.
Chopra was taken Thursday to Fresno County Jail.
According to Healthgrades.com, the 71-year-old is a 1968 graduate of the All-India Institute Of Medical Sciences in New Delhi and has been practicing 50 years. His profile on WebMD.com says he graduated the institute in 1970.
Both websites claim Chopra is affiliated with Memorial Medical Center. But Sutter Health spokesman Craig Baize said no doctor by Chopra's name has privileges or is associated with the medical center. "He did have privileges in the past ... but that information is definitely outdated."
In late fall 2014, Chopra and his wife, Aruna Kumari Chopra, were arrested and booked into the Stanislaus County Jail on felony forgery and impersonation charges related to a 26-year-old land deal in Danville. Stanislaus County Superior Court records show charges against the doctor were dismissed, but his wife was found guilty of filing false real estate documents and forgery.
At the time of their arrest, Aruna Chopra, the would-be developer of Modesto's first Imax theater, already was facing fraud counts in federal court.
According to a plea deal, Aruna Chopra forged no fewer than 14 signatures on multiple phony documents in her failed quest to build The Plaza at Dale — a six-screen theater, bowling alley, hotel, restaurants, shops and luxury condominiums across Dale Road from Kaiser hospital.
In April 2016, she was sentenced to a year behind bars. The then-67-year-old also was ordered to serve an additional year of home detention and repay lenders and Modesto City Hall a total of $4.2 million.
Her defense attorney said at the time that Sawtantra Chopra liquidated his pension to help repay creditors.