An Arkansas physician who rehabilitated his image, regaining his medical license after going to federal prison on a child pornography charge, is now charged with a felonious relapse — this time accused of overprescribing opioids and other controlled substances.
In October, Dr. Lonnie Joseph Parker of Texarkana was charged in U.S. District Court in Texarkana with nine counts of prescribing without a legitimate medical purpose.
The 55-year-old doctor has pleaded not guilty and isn’t allowed to practice while awaiting trial, scheduled April 13 in front of Judge Susan O. Hickey.
“It’s ridiculous,” Parker said, telling Arkansas Business he suspects he was charged because of his history. “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.”
In 2000, a U.S. District Court jury in Little Rock found Parker guilty on one count of possession of child pornography, resulting in a 57-month sentence in federal prison. Parker has insisted that the images he received by email were unsolicited and that he was working undercover with federal agents to catch the senders of the illegal pictures.
After his release from prison, Parker applied to the Arkansas State Medical Board for the reinstatement of his medical license in 2005. It was granted, making him probably the state’s only licensed doctor with a child porn conviction.
Arkansas Business reviewed the hundreds of pages in the Medical Board’s file on Parker, as well as his criminal court files, to glimpse into the life of a doctor linked to two scourges of modern society: child pornography and opioid abuse.
In June, nearly four months before a federal grand jury in the Western District of Arkansas indicted Parker on the overprescribing charges, the Medical Board issued an emergency order of suspension. The allegations included prescribing an excessive amount of controlled substances for his patients — so much that suspicions were raised that drugs were being diverted.
“The medical records demonstrate a recklessness in [prescribing] narcotics to very high risk patients with obvious drug diversion and abuse of the [prescribed] substances. Would recommend immediate action by the ASMB,” a member of the board’s Pain Management Review Committee wrote. The committee member’s name was redacted from records Arkansas Business obtained under the state Freedom of Information Act.
After the order was issued, Parker told the Medical Board that he’d discovered that the patient records reviewed by the Pain Management Review Committee were incomplete. He said in a June 18 letter to the board that his electronic medical record system didn’t print all of the patients’ records, though he thought that it had. “I apologize for this oversight and include them here for your review.”
Attorney Drake Mann of the Little Rock law firm Gill Ragon Owen represented Parker before the Medical Board. In an email to Arkansas Business, Mann said that after the pain management committee reviewed the entire patient documentation, the board found the prescriptions were justified.
“I know for a fact that all the cases the Board looked at were 100% straight up,” Mann said by email. “There was absolutely nothing wrong in any way, much less illegal, with his prescribing in those cases.”
The board agreed to lift Parker’s suspension on Aug. 1, with the stipulation that he wouldn’t prescribe controlled substances with the exception of medication used to treat opioid addiction. His disciplinary hearing was continued to the board’s October meeting.
At that meeting, Parker offered not to prescribe codeine cough medicine or ketamine, which is used for chronic pain, as well as Schedule II medications, which include oxycodone, fentanyl and morphine. Parker also would continue being monitored by the Pain Management Review Committee and pay $4,500 to cover the cost of his investigation.
Parker agreed to the settlement with the Medical Board because he wanted to get back to work, Mann said in the email.
“By voluntarily agreeing not to do the one thing the Board had expressed concern about, Dr. Parker gave the Board the assurance it needed to protect public health,” Mann said. “The Board has a hard job: it not only has to protect the public health, it has to make sure Arkansans have access to good doctors.”
Still, two board members opposed the arrangement with Parker at the Oct. 4 meeting, according to the Medical Board. “The opposition votes were made without an explanation,” Kevin O’Dwyer, the attorney for the Medical Board, said in an email to Arkansas Business.
But the same day as the board made its decision, the federal government made a different finding.
In 2018, law enforcement officials in Texarkana suspected a “pill mill” and overdose death of a patient, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Dak Kees of the Western District of Arkansas.
“Investigators analyzed prescription drug monitoring data attributed to Dr. Parker, and the investigation revealed Dr. Parker was an over-prescriber of controlled substances, to include opiates, benzodiazepines, and promethazine with codeine cough syrup in the Texarkana area,” Kees said in the release.
Last week, the U.S. attorney’s office said it didn’t have an update in connection with the alleged overdose death.
Still, in a two-year period, Parker allegedly prescribed about 1.2 million dosage units of opiates, including oxycodone and hydrocodone, to some 1,500 patients — almost 850 dosage units per patient, according to the news release.
A morphine equivalent dose is a method of calculating the strength of a pain medication for comparison to other medications. For example, 1.2 million morphine equivalent doses would be more than 120,000 pills of hydrocodone if the dose was 10 milligrams, the lowest-strength chronic pain medication.
The prescription numbers “look high to me, and not something that I think most primary care practicing physicians are probably going to do,” said Dr. Charlene Dewey, professor of medicine and education at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Professional Health.
But Dewey said more information about the patients would be needed to determine whether the dosages were appropriate, and Parker told Arkansas Business that his numbers might seem high because he treated cancer patients.
He also said he’s one of the few general practice physicians in the Texarkana area who treats patients with chronic pain. Others in the region have decided not to treat pain because of the scrutiny they face from regulators, he said.
During the two-year period investigators looked at, Parker also allegedly prescribed about 16 gallons of promethazine with codeine, a cough syrup, to nearly 30 patients, according to Kees’ news release. “These prescriptions include several prescriptions written in combination with narcotics and sedatives to high diversion risk patients,” the news release said.
Parker told Arkansas Business the gallons of cough syrup weren’t prescribed at one time. He said the doses prescribed were within guidelines. “So how is that overprescribing?” Parker said.
Born in Great Bend, Kansas, Parker was raised in De Queen and Eureka Springs. He said he’d known since he was 8 or 9 years old that he wanted to be a doctor and a scientist. “My mother was a nurse, and I would follow her around the hospital when I was very young,” he said.
Parker was one of 10 children on a small farm. So, he said, if he wanted to go to college, he had to find a way to pay for it.
Parker joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1983 and stayed on active duty until 1987. After he got his bachelor’s degree in computer science from Roosevelt University in Chicago, Parker joined the Air Force and achieved the rank of captain. Parker said he attended night school to complete the courses he needed for medical school.
In the fall of 1993, Parker started attending the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota.
After graduating in May 1997, he started a residency at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where his specialty was emergency medicine. He was scheduled to complete his residency on June 30, 2000. By all accounts, he was a great resident.
“I can attest to his dependability, intelligence and superior ability to handle critical patient problems in the area of Emergency Medicine,” Martin Carey, residency director at the Department of Emergency Medicine at UAMS Medical Center, wrote in an Aug. 24, 1998, letter to the Arkansas State Medical Board. “To my knowledge, Dr. Parker has no problem with substance abuse including alcohol.”
But Parker wouldn’t finish his residency program as scheduled.
Back when Parker was a fourth-year medical student in Minnesota, in 1996-97, he received child pornography at his home through his America Online account.
After receiving the unsolicited images, Parker told a federal court in a 2003 filing, he called the local FBI office and an agent told him to “try and get more information on the people sending these.” Parker said the agent told him the images could be used as evidence if “we caught someone.”
Parker said he also called the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children to report the porn and continued feeding the FBI information, but no arrests were made.
Before leaving for Little Rock in 1997, Parker called the FBI in Minnesota one last time. He said the agent told him not to save the images and contact the FBI in Little Rock when he arrived.
Parker did as he was told. The FBI agent, though, instructed Parker to print out the images from his computer and bring them to the FBI.
Parker said he didn’t have the time to print out the pictures and bring them to the FBI office because of his busy residency schedule. Parker reported that the FBI agent told him to “do it when you can,” according to Parker’s filing. But Parker never did.
It would turn out to be a costly delay for Parker.
In January 1998, the U.S. Customs Service launched an investigation into Parker for receiving and possession of child porn, and Customs agents had a different version of events. Prosecutors demonstrated that Parker was “acting on his own; the FBI officers in Arkansas never authorized Parker to download or possess child pornography,” according to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
By the end of 1998, a federal grand jury for the Eastern District of Arkansas had indicted Parker on four federal counts in connection with the child pornography. He was tried in 2000. Parker didn’t testify, and his attorney did not put on any witnesses in his defense.
The jury found him guilty of possessing child pornography. The jury acquitted him of one of the three counts of receiving child porn and couldn’t make a decision on the other two counts.
Parker was sentenced to federal prison for 37 months, with three years of supervised release.
It looked as if Parker’s medical career were over. The Medical Board suspended his license after the guilty verdict and revoked it in 2002.
After the sentencing, Parker said, he still owed about $120,000 in student loans and didn’t know how he was going to repay them, according to a September 2000 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
“If I could go back in time and take a few minutes from here and do something that might change what’s happened, I would,” Parker said through sobs, according to the article.
Parker appealed the verdict to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, saying there was new evidence and that the government didn’t disclose evidence tied to his undercover work in Minnesota. The federal prosecutors also appealed the verdict, saying the sadistic images Parker possessed deserved more prison time.
The 8th Circuit denied Parker’s request for a new trial and said the new evidence would not have mattered in his case. “Law enforcement officials stated that Parker was directed only to deliver the images he had already obtained and had stored on his computer’s hard drive to the FBI — a direction he subsequently ignored,” the 8th Circuit ruling said. “There was no evidence presented that Parker had acted on the request or advice of a duly authorized law enforcement official concerning his continued possession and accumulation of child pornography in Arkansas.”
Instead, the 8th Circuit agreed with prosecutors and sent the case back to U.S. District Court for resentencing, saying the images were of a “violent and depraved nature.” In January 2002, Parker was given a new, longer sentence: 57 months in prison.
While Parker was in prison, Dr. Jessica Saberman of Fishers, Indiana, a friend of Parker’s, kept him supplied with medical textbooks and periodicals. “It was important to him to stay as up to date as possible and keep his mind sharp,” she wrote the Arkansas State Medical Board in May 2005.
Getting His License Back
After serving four years in prison, Parker was released on Dec. 30, 2004. He wasted no time trying to get back to practicing medicine, even though he still had three years of supervised release.
He asked the Medical Board for his license back. Included in his application was a July 2005 letter of support from Chris Melton, residency director of emergency medicine at UAMS.
“Dr. Parker’s evaluations of his clinical performance during residence were all satisfactory,” the letter said. “He was never under probation or restriction of his clinical privileges for any complaints or unacceptable behavior.”
The ASMB accepted his narrative and voted unanimously to reinstate his license on Aug. 5, 2005. “Dr. Parker presented what the Board believed was credible evidence to support his reinstatement,” O’Dwyer, who wasn’t the board’s attorney at that time, said in an email to Arkansas Business. “There are considerations stated in the statute allowing the Board to waive a felony.”
Jerry McIntyre, a Little Rock private investigator who worked on Parker’s case for more than five years, wrote the board in August 2005, thanking members for allowing Parker to practice medicine again.
The board members’ belief in Parker “is the first step in society’s long-overdue debt of helping to right one of the greatest tragedies ever perpetrated upon a young man and his family,” McIntyre said in his letter to the board. “His story seems so incredible that I’m sure you found it hard to believe that something like this could happen in America. Unfortunately, it is all true and those who have experienced his life, along with him, have lost a lot of their innocence in the process.”
McIntyre said Parker never wavered in his dedication to helping people.
“He has proven that he is a man of remarkable strength of character and I believe your confidence in him is the encouragement that he needs at this critical point [in] life,” McIntyre wrote. “He will not disappoint you.”
But rebuilding his life wouldn’t be easy.
After Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in August 2005, Parker filed a petition with U.S. District Court in Little Rock to travel to Baton Rouge and New Orleans to provide medical care. “This is a life or death situation, and [Parker] is needed there,” Parker’s criminal defense attorney, John Wesley Hall of Little Rock, wrote in September 2005. The federal government didn’t oppose the request, but Parker’s probation officer did.
Parker didn’t say where he would be staying when he traveled to the affected areas “and whether he will have contact with children,” according to the order from U.S. District Judge George Howard Jr. “Furthermore, because of communication problems caused by the hurricane, [Parker] cannot be adequately supervised as there is no assurance that he will have access to phone service.”
Parker’s motion was denied.
Even with the conviction, Parker managed to land jobs as a doctor. After working in urgent care and general medicine, Parker took a job in 2007 at Medical Park Hospital in Hope, where he held the position of director of medicine and vice chief of staff. After the hospital was purchased in 2012, Parker said, the new owners filled the physician positions with other doctors.
Parker then practiced primary care at his own clinic before being asked to join Little River Memorial Hospital in Ashdown in 2013, where his practice included emergency medicine. He stayed at Little River until 2016.
Parker’s circuitous medical career coincided with the development of an epidemic of opioid abuse. In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies touted new opioids for pain relief and reassured providers that patients wouldn’t become addicted to them, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
Providers didn’t know how addictive the drugs would become. Opioid overdoses accounted for about 48,000 deaths in the United States in 2017. An estimated 40% of opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid, HHS said.
In 2017, HHS declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and medical boards revised their guidelines on the treatment of patients with pain, resulting in many general practice doctors saying they wouldn’t treat chronic pain patients.
Parker, however, said he continued his training to treat people with addiction, and he opened the first addiction treatment center on the Arkansas side of Texarkana.
He took classes at Harvard Medical School for evaluating and treating pain, and he completed other course work from the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
Parker said he got hundreds of people completely off opioids. “I would cut them down to safer doses in a controlled fashion,” he said.
Parker said he now thinks that the doctors who stopped treating chronic pain patients were smart.
“I thought that if I followed all the rules and proper medical practices, I would be OK,” he said. “And I was stupid.”
The four-page indictment, filed Oct. 4, offers few details about Parker’s alleged crimes.
Four counts allege that Parker “knowingly and intentionally distributed codeine” to four individual patients “without an effective prescription.” The other five counts alleged he delivered oxycodone to five individual patients.
Parker said Hall is still his attorney, and they are working on his defense to the charges, but he’s not hopeful about the outcome.
“They were able to convict me last time when I was a captain in the United States Air Force and a doctor with a perfectly clean record,” Parker said. “Now I’m a convicted felon.”