A high-profile Georgia weight-loss doctor is closing her practice and facing scrutiny from federal authorities following an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation of the sale of a prescription diet drug over the internet.
A spokesman for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in Atlanta said the agency is looking closely at Dr. Jan McBarron as a result of the newspaper’s December story that found she prescribed phentermine for people she never examined.
Phentermine, an amphetamine-like appetite suppressant, is a Schedule IV controlled substance. Under federal law, it can’t be prescribed without a thorough physical examination. In recent years, several physicians have been convicted and sentenced to prison for prescribing the drug improperly.
According to experts, the drug can pose risks for pregnant women or people with hypertension or heart disease.
The DEA’s scrutiny comes at a time when McBarron, nationally known for her outspoken advocacy of natural remedies as alternatives to prescription drugs, is shuttering her practice after 30 years.
A letter to her patients dated Jan. 28 and posted on the entrances to her main office in Columbus says the doctor is retiring March 23 and will not see patients after Feb. 28. The website for her practice, Georgia Bariatrics, has a brief message with similar information.
In an email to the AJC, McBarron, 66, said she and her husband, Duke Liberatore, decided four years that she would retire and the couple would move to Nevada when her mother died. That plan is now in motion because her mother died last fall, she wrote.
She did not respond to a request for comment on the DEA’s interest in her practice.
The AJC has learned that the DEA had evidence four years ago that McBarron was prescribing drugs to people she never examined. The evidence came from a former employee and included a lengthy written narrative and spreadsheets purportedly showing the doctor’s monthly drug sales.
The DEA spokesman, Robert Evans, confirmed that, based on that information, the federal agency along with the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency looked into McBarron’s practice, but he said it didn’t have enough to make a case. Since the AJC’s story appeared, the DEA has a renewed interest, he said.
“What I can say is, based on additional information we received, most notably a report that came out in December in the AJC, we are taking that information … and continuing to pursue it,” he said.
Evans said the fact that McBarron is retiring would have no bearing on the DEA’s inquiry.
McBarron is perhaps best known for a nationally syndicated radio show she hosted with Liberatore. “Duke & The Doctor,” which aired for 15 years before it ended in 2014, regularly touted vitamins, herbs and other natural products and slammed traditional medicine for its reliance on drugs.
The couple is also known for their lavish lifestyle. They live in a 12,842-square-foot mansion with five bedrooms, seven baths and a tennis court in Columbus’ historic Overlook neighborhood. Writing recently about the pair, longtime Columbus columnist Richard Hyatt described how they once attended Hawks games wearing floor-length “his-and-her” mink coats.
Railing against prescription drugs has made McBarron a popular figure in the worlds of holistic and alternative medicine, but the AJC found that she had built a source of income through sales of prescription phentermine.
The AJC investigated McBarron after an informant contacted the newspaper to say the doctor was prescribing and dispensing the drug to people who had ordered it through her practice’s website and never visited her office.
To check the tip, the AJC asked two people who had never been McBarron’s patients — one in Georgia and another in a state more than 500 miles away — to complete documentation online that allowed them to become patients and order the drug. Within days of completing that process and paying with credit cards, they received the pills at their homes via Federal Express.
Most pharmacies charge less than $30 for a 30-pill supply of phentermine, which generally isn’t covered by insurance. However, the two people who purchased the drug online from McBarron at the AJC’s request were charged more than three times that price.
Since the AJC published its story, two of McBarron’s former employees have contacted the newspaper with information. One provided emails between the ex-employee and a DEA agent during a two-month period in early 2014.
The former employee provided the agent, Lydia Bagley, with a four-page narrative describing how McBarron initiated a program that allowed new patients to obtain drugs online by filling out a questionnaire.
“Dr. McBarron told in a meeting with just me (and) her that never to tell anybody the process with how I got the forms filled out,” the former employee wrote. “And that not to worry because nothing that I gave (the patients) would kill them.”
The former employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, also provided the agent with a series of spreadsheets showing that the doctor was apparently making tens of thousands of dollars a month through internet drug sales as early as 2012.
The former employee told the AJC that Bagley made an appointment to see McBarron, but it isn’t clear what else she did with the information. “I spent a couple of days writing that stuff up, racking my brain,” the ex-employee said. “I reached out, but I wasn’t going to do this nonstop.”
Evans said he did not know the details of that inquiry other than “it didn’t rise to the level that we needed to take immediate action.” He also speculated that the proliferation of pill mills in Georgia at the time may have pushed the case to the back burner.
“The information may have been credible but didn’t rise to the level we needed to marshal more resources and go after that particular subject,” he said.
Prescribing a controlled substance for a patient “solely on a consultation via electronic means” also violates Georgia Composite Medical Board regulations. However, it’s unclear whether the board is investigating McBarron, whose license isn’t due to expire for another 14 months.
“As you know we cannot confirm or deny any complaints with the board,” the board’s interim executive director, LaSharn Hughes, wrote in an email to the AJC.
In 1999, the board placed McBarron on six months’ probation and fined her $5,000. The case included charges that she recommended unproven natural remedies during television broadcasts, improperly dispensed a thyroid hormone for weight loss to a patient and sent a letter to a former patient advising her that she could obtain appetite suppressants without being examined by the doctor.
According to the final order, McBarron denied wrongdoing but agreed to the fine and probation “solely as a compromise and settlement.” She also agreed that she would not solicit patients “by offering to dispense controlled substances without (a) medical examination.”
McBarron also is licensed in Alabama, where she operates a clinic in nearby Opelika. Her license there is due to expire at the end of this year.
The AJC was unable to immediately determine whether the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners is investigating McBarron.
How we got the story
Last year, an informant contacted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution alleging that Dr. Jan McBarron was prescribing and dispensing the appetite suppressant phentermine for people based solely on their answers to an online questionnaire.
The tip was intriguing. A prominent weight-loss physician, McBarron is also nationally recognized in holistic and alternative medicine circles for her advocacy of natural products as alternatives to prescription drugs.
The AJC decided that it would investigate by asking two people who had never been McBarron’s patients to see if they could obtain the drug in the manner described by the informant.
Each filled out a patient signup form that was on the website for the doctor’s practice, Georgia Bariatrics. The form required that they list their height and weight and note their understanding that they would be taking medication for the sole purpose of losing weight.
Both then received an email informing them that they had become patients and could obtain the drug online as well as at McBarron’s office. They were also asked to complete a one-page questionnaire seeking information about their medical histories. They provided the information accurately, although no one contacted them to verify it.
Within days of submitting the questionnaires and paying by credit card, they received vials of phentermine at their homes via Federal Express. The pills arrived in bottles with McBarron’s name and DEA number on the labels.