Dr. William Hurwitz lives a quiet life today in the Davis Lake neighborhood of north Charlotte. But his past notoriety is about to rise again with the upcoming release of a documentary, “Dr. Feelgood: Dealer or Healer?”
The film tells the story of Hurwitz, now 71, a former pain specialist in Virginia, who was convicted of more than 50 counts of narcotics distribution and received a 25-year prison sentence in 2004. The verdict was overturned on appeal, and after a second trial, he was convicted of 16 lesser charges and eventually released after serving four years and eight months in prison.
Filmmaker Eve Marson uses Hurwitz’ story as a window into the ethical dilemma facing doctors over prescription drug use, the nation’s fastest growing drug problem. The film underscores the tension between a patient’s right to pain relief and the lawful need for drug control.
“Some of his patients see him as a heroic genius, while others dismiss him as a fool and a murderer,” Marson said. “The questions arise: Is he a compassionate doctor or a reckless drug trafficker? It was always my intention to make a film that presented an ambiguous portrayal of Dr. Hurwitz.”
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The documentary, which becomes available for digital streaming Jan. 31, tells the story of Hurwitz and several of his patients, some of whom became drug dealers. Hurwitz said he didn’t see it as his job to judge people or condemn them for their frailties. “That doesn’t strike me as the right way to be a doctor,” he says in the film.
Hurwitz rejects the idea that doctors shouldn’t prescribe enough drugs to relieve pain because it can turn patients into addicts. After seeing positive changes in patients whose pain was treated adequately, he chose to believe patients’ accounts of their pain and treat them aggressively, with higher and higher doses as they became more tolerant.
In a phone interview with the Observer this week, Hurwitz said: “Maybe a smarter, streetwise doctor than I would have realized what was going on with these patients and cut them off. I was not so smart and streetwise.”
Over the years, Hurwitz’ practice came to the attention of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and his license was suspended twice in the 1990s in response to complaints about the excessive amount of opioids, such as Oxycontin, he prescribed.
When his license was restored in 1998, Hurwitz said he had become widely known as a pain doctor, and patients contacted him from across the country. At trial, prosecutors said he had 500 patients from 39 states. He was accused of “large-scale drug trafficking.” Several patients who had become drug dealers cooperated with prosecutors, secretly recording conversations with Hurwitz and testifying against him at trial.
At Hurwitz’ second trial, jurors heard testimony from many patients who felt their lives had been saved by the doctor. Defense lawyers also emphasized there was no evidence that patients who were dealing drugs shared any profits when they resold the painkillers Hurwitz had prescribed.
“He was not in it for the money,” said Marson, the filmmaker. “He was not in it for malicious purposes. I think he was well-intentioned, and yet, what happened, happened.”
Marson said she hopes her film “illuminates a bit more of the complexity” of the opioid problem. “I don’t mean to say that everyone is blameless,” she said. “But I hope people walk away feeling less blame for doctors, less blame for addicts.”
Five years ago, Hurwitz moved to Davis Lake in northeast Charlotte to be near his then-newborn granddaughter. Both his ex-wife, Nilse Quercia, and their daughter, who live on the same street as Hurwitz, are in the film, sharing their belief that he should have known some of his patients were dealing drugs. “Some people can be so naive and blind to everything,” Quercia says. “That’s Billy.”
Hurwitz, a 1971 graduate of Stanford University medical school and former Peace Corps volunteer, said he’s “relieved” not to be practicing medicine anymore.
“The current narrative that’s being promoted in news articles is that doctors treating pain aggressively are responsible for the current opioid epidemic,” he said, “and I don’t believe that’s true.”
Here’s a trailer: https://vimeo.com/182238722