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Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- The former billing supervisor of Louisiana Spine & Sports Medicine, shown here at 4545 Bluebonnet Blvd., has been ordered in federal court to pay more than $200,000 in restitution in a fraud case.

A former physician assistant at a Baton Rouge pain management clinic who admitted taking part in a scheme to illegally distribute 40,000-plus oxycodone pills was sentenced Thursday to seven years in federal prison.

Christopher William Armstrong, who worked at Louisiana Spine & Sports LLC on Bluebonnet Boulevard from 2004 to 2014, tearfully apologized to U.S. District Judge John deGravelles, the community, his family and friends for his "poor decisions."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Justin Woodard argued to deGravelles that Armstrong "helped fuel" the opioid crisis in this country. The judge agreed.

"You have to be living on Mars to not know about the opioid crisis," deGravelles told Armstrong. "You contributed to that."

Armstrong, of Prairieville, pleaded guilty last November to conspiracy to distribute oxycodone and has been jailed since.

One of the pain management clinic's former co-owners, Dr. John Eastham Clark, of Baton Rouge, was sentenced in May to 37 months in federal prison and ordered to pay nearly $255,000 in restitution in an unrelated fraudulent billing scheme. The clinic's former billing supervisor, Charlene Anita Severio, of Walker, was put on probation for two years in May and ordered to pay more than $254,000 in restitution for her role in the billing scheme.

Spine & Sports' other former co-owner, Dr. Gray Wesley Barrow, of Baton Rouge, is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 4 for receiving $336,000 in kickbacks in exchange for sending patient urine specimens to a certain drug testing laboratory. Prosecutors said Barrow, a former LSU track and field standout, agreed to send urine specimens collected from his patients to the lab in return for a percentage of the reimbursements paid to the lab by health care benefit programs, including Medicare.

Another former clinic employee, Benjamin Paul Landry, of Plaquemine, previously pleaded guilty in the oxycodone scheme involving Armstrong and is awaiting sentencing on Oct. 1.

Prosecutors said Armstrong spent five years writing fraudulent oxycodone prescriptions.

Armstrong admitted last fall that he would routinely log into the clinic's computer system and, without authorization, create fraudulent prescriptions. He admitted he would then print those prescriptions and either forge the signatures of the clinic's physicians or have the physicians sign them unknowingly. Armstrong also admitted distributing the fraudulent prescriptions to co-conspirators who would fill the orders at pharmacies and return the pills to Armstrong for cash payments.

In sentencing Armstrong to seven years in prison, deGravelles acknowledged he departed significantly downward from federal sentencing guidelines that recommended a sentence in the range of 11 to 14 years. “I really struggled with this one,” the judge said.

Armstrong’s attorney, Marci Blaize, had told deGravelles that Armstrong served in several branches of the military for more than 20 years and was highly decorated. In begging for leniency, Armstrong asked the judge to view him “as more than a crime.” He noted that he beat his drug addiction.

Clark, who also served as Spine & Sports’ medical director, and Severio were accused of falsely telling Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield that minor surgical procedures happened the day after an office visit so the clinic could be reimbursed for both the visit and the procedure.

Federal prosecutors said the scheme resulted in nearly $516,000 in fraudulent claims over 10 years beginning in 2005. 

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.