RHINELANDER - A Woodruff doctor took a step toward working in medicine again on Wednesday.
Dr. Heath Meyer, 48, has been unemployed for the last five years.
In 2015, he was convicted of three drug-related felonies in Oneida County after using his job to get opioids and feed his painkiller addiction. But on Wednesday, those felonies were wiped away, and Meyer could be closer to getting back into medicine.
Meanwhile, the lawyer who originally prosecuted Meyer said he probably treated patients while high on painkillers. She called the legal move a "travesty."
Meyer served as an emergency room doctor at Howard Young Medical Center in Woodruff for years. Then, he got caught illegally feeding his opioid addiction.
"Make no bones about it. These were crimes. These were very serious felonies that were committed," said Jodie Bednar, who originally prosecuted Meyer, on Wednesday.
Meyer pleaded guilty to three felonies for narcotics delivery in January 2016.
The criminal complaint says Meyer started prescribing painkillers to a coworker in 2008. The coworker would give them back to Meyer for his chronic back pain.
"Over the course of two and a half years, it amounted to about 5,000 pills," Bednar said.
After the friend stopped her involvement in the fraud, Meyer turned to a different strategy.
"He started stealing prescription pads and forging the names of other doctors on prescriptions for various substances," Bednar said.
Meyer would then fill the prescriptions for himself at at least four pharmacies in Price and Oneida counties. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents found Meyer illegally got himself tramadol, diazepam, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.
Eventually, a pharmacist in Park Falls checked with another doctor whose name was on one of the prescriptions.
"And the doctor said, 'what are you talking about? I haven't written out a prescription for Heath Meyer in over two years,'" recounted Bednar.
Since Meyer's guilty pleas, he's been on probation, done more than 300 hours of community service, and come back clean on all 148 of his drug tests.
On Wednesday in Oneida County Circuit Court, Oneida County Assistant District Attorney Mary Sowinski and Judge Patrick O'Melia agreed with defense attorney John Hogan's motion to clear the felonies on his record and change them to misdemeanors.
"This is a way for us to allow him to proceed with his life," Sowinski said.
Sowinski said Meyer's actions had no impact on any other person's drug habit.
"Mr. Meyer fed his own addiction and no one else's," Sowinski said.
She said times have changed since Meyer was originally convicted.
"[Meyer] was treated under the presumption that he was a dealer, which really wasn't the way that we currently view opioid addiction and use, particularly by physicians," Sowinski said.
Bednar, the original prosecutor, called the legal change a "travesty."
"It could literally cost people their lives. The stakes are too high," she said.
As a convicted felon, Meyer lost his authority to prescribe controlled substances. The felony made him ineligible for the DEA registry, which grants that authority to 1.8 million doctors and researchers across the country, according to DEA spokesman Melvin Patterson.
"[The felony conviction] was the only way to ensure that he'd never have the opportunity to victimize any innocent people ever again," Bednar said.
But without a felony conviction, the DEA could give him those privileges back.
"There is a lot that a prosecutor cannot control, and one of them is the federal prescription registry. All I can control is what I believe to be a fair outcome in this case," Sowinski said. "What the folks at the registry do with Mr. Meyer is up to them. I would only ask that they treat him as they would any similarly situated physician."
Hogan, Meyer's lawyer, indicated Meyer wants to work in medicine in the military.
"The military, of course, is crying for physicians to come and work for them. He has a deep interest in doing so," Hogan said. "It is manifestly unjust to treat my client continuously as a convicted felon."
Hogan said he didn't know whether Meyer will apply for drug prescribing privileges with the DEA again. Hogan said Meyer's goal is "to be employed somewhere," and having the felony conviction removed will help. Meyer has never lost his license to practice medicine in Wisconsin, according to Hogan.
The change of the conviction to four misdemeanors troubles Bednar, who said Meyer was a "junkie" while on duty at the emergency room. Bednar said she hopes district attorneys in Price and Vilas counties will now bring felony charges against Meyer. Those counties didn't charge him originally, letting Oneida County take care of the prosecution.