Dr. Betty Jo Carter, who practices medicine out of her home in Ruskin, will come before the Florida Board of Medicine on Friday on charges of speeding the death of a dying man with big doses of morphine and other painkillers.
That’s what the autopsy said killed Gary Lazar, who was suffering major organ failure, but Carter – who was Lazar’s friend and slept at his house to take care of him in his final days -- denied overmedicating him on purpose. He died in February 2012.
The Hillsborough County state attorney declined to prosecute the case. So it ended up in the hands of the Department of Health, which filed an administrative complaint against Carter in December. She was charged with malpractice, inappropriate drug dispensing and records violations.
DOH said she violated the boundary between doctor and patient, a phrase that usually pops up only in sexual-abuse complaints. Experts on such matters say it’s best for doctors not to treat their close friends, just as with their family members.
Attorneys for DOH and Carter hammered out a settlement that calls for a reprimand, an $8,000 fine and a risk-assessment of her practice by outside experts. But Carter has to appear before the medical board on Friday so that members can ask questions if they want. If they reject the settlement in favor of a stiffer penalty, Carter can take the case to a formal hearing.
One oddity in the public records: The summary sheet in the DOH file says Carter has no prior discipline. But she does, according to an article earlier this year in the Tampa Bay Times. She served a 14-month sentence in federal prison for Medicare fraud, and had to go before the Board of Medicine in 1992 to get her license restored. The agreement at the time called for a fine and probation.
As for the case confronting Carter now, the Times’ report quotes University of Florida bioethics director William Allen. “It’s essentially a conflict of interest” to treat a close friend, he said. “You’ve already got one relationship, and now you’re complicating it with another one.”
The records say Carter had known and treated Lazar for many years, and had paid him to do odd jobs from time to time. As Lazar was dying and rejected hospice care, records say, Carter even paid one of her other patients $100 a day to take care of him during the daytime.