On Sunday news broke that the Montana Board of Medical Examiners suspended Dr. Mark Jay Catalanello’s medical license for alleged illegal drug use.
A long-running MTFP investigation into Catalanello has revealed a long history of drug and alcohol abuse — including multiple felony arrests — raising serious questions about the physician in charge of the state-run chemical dependency treatment program in Butte.
Catalanello, a full-time employee at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs since 2007, also works as the medical director of the state-run Montana Chemical Dependency Center, a Butte-based in-patient treatment program for drug and alcohol abuse.
According to a recent media report, the Department of Public Health and Human Services placed Catalanello on paid administrative leave on Sept. 29 after the Montana Professional Assistance Program “began receiving reports in August of delinquent charting, a disheveled appearance and other concerns…”
An MTFP investigation into Catalanello that began more than a year ago has uncovered a lengthy record of drug and alcohol abuse, felony arrests, failed rehabilitation, refusals to participate in mandated drug and alcohol screenings, and suspended and revoked medical licenses in Montana and California.
Catalanello’s complete criminal record is unknown due to the fact that a Missoula judge ordered his records sealed from public view. Multiple attempts to gain access to Catalanello’s legal history – or even to obtain an explanation from the court or Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenberg’s office as to why the record was sealed – have thus far been unsuccessful.
Calls to Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenberg were directed to Deputy Attorney Suzy Boylan, who declined to comment on the case citing the court-ordered seal.
However, the MTFP has obtained multiple disciplinary records, news accounts, and a 2005 property forfeiture petition that paint a troubling picture of addiction, denial, and fraud on behalf of MCDC’s top chemical dependency doctor.
Despite the serious criminal allegations laid out in the forfeiture petition, past license suspensions and a well-documented history of drug and alcohol abuse, Catalanello’s medical license was reinstated on May 5, 2007 – fewer than 18 months after his last felony drug arrest.
The state then hired him to work at the Montana State Hospital on July 25, 2007.
Whether the Montana Board of Medical Examiners had knowledge of Catalanello’s felony drug record before they reinstated his license in 2007 is unknown.
Whether officials at DPPHS knew about Catalanello’s criminal history and drug and alcohol addiction when they hired him in 2007 is also unknown.
Whether MCDC officials knew of Catalanello’s past when they put him in charge of a treatment program that “provides the highest level or most intense level of treatment for addictions in the health care continuum,” is unknown.
A spokesman for DPHHS said he would try to get back to me with answers to some of these questions later today. I’ll update this post accordingly.
In the meantime, here’s what we do know about Dr. Mark Jay Catalanello.
According to media reports, court records, criminal history reports and documents filed with the Montana and California state medical boards, Catalanello’s first-known run-in with the law due to illegal drug use happened in Missoula on Nov. 30, 2001.
Catalanello, then a family medicine doctor in Plains, was driving a 2000 Ford pickup truck that was “weaving along” Orange Street in Missoula. The officer who stopped Catalanello searched his vehicle and found prescription drugs for which the doctor didn’t have prescriptions, including painkillers and muscle relaxants.
On. Dec. 10, 2001, the Missoula County Attorney’s Office charged Catalanello with illegal possession of dangerous drugs and driving under the influence.
According to a criminal history report, Catalanello received a one-year deferred sentence on the felony charge of criminal possession of dangerous drugs. Catalanello got permission from the court to leave the state to attend an inpatient treatment program.
Washed out of treatment
Stemming from his 2001 arrest, Catalanello entered the Montana Professional Assistance Program, which is a sort of chemical dependency treatment program for certain licensed professionals.
Many states have such programs. An attorney for the Board of Medical Examiners explained the purpose of MPAP to me this way (and I’m paraphrasing):
When a doctor gets in trouble with drugs or alcohol, it’s in society’s interest to give them a second chance rather than just throw away all those years of education and training…
At some point after the 2001 arrest and subsequent treatment, Catalanello returned to practicing medicine.
According to Montana Board of Medical Examiners records, on March 22, 2003, the board “commenced monitoring” of Catalanello’s practice through MPAP.
According to board disciplinary records, Catalanello “relapsed” for the first time and attended MPAP treatment again beginning on Nov. 3, 2003.
Catalanello relapsed again a few months later. On Jan. 20, 2004 he tested positive for alcohol, which was prohibited under the terms of his MPAP rehab contract.
According to board disciplinary records, Catalanello admitted at that time “to consumption of alcohol both the night before the UA screening and on approximately 12 or 13 other occasions over the preceding three months.”
Catalanello then said he “will not work with the Clinical Coordinator for MPAP,” board records stated.
At that point the Montana Board of Medical Examiners initiated proceedings to suspend Catalanello’s medical license.
On May 21, 2004, the board suspended Catalanello’s license indefinitely based on “allegations that [Catalanello] possessed and abused illegal drugs and alcohol, drove while under the influence, and was unsuccessful in his efforts at rehabilitation and treatment.”
According to an attorney for the board who spoke on background, Catalanello essentially “gave up” practicing medicine at that point.
California license revoked
Catalanello received his medical degree from the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara, which is described as a “coeducational, independent, private university based in Guadalajara, Mexico.” He was first licensed to practice medicine California in 1991.
When Montana suspended Catalanello’s medical license, the agency notified its counterpart in California of the decision.
According to records from the Medical Board of California, that agency initiated suspension proceedings against Catalanello and sent him notice on July 22, 2004.
Catalanello never responded to the allegations, and his California medical license was revoked on Nov. 4, 2004, nearly three years after his initial arrest in Missoula.
Second felony drug arrest
After his license was suspended in Montana and revoked in California, Catalanello allegedly engaged in a scheme that involved using the names of other doctors and patients to illegally obtain prescription drugs.
In documents submitted to a Missoula court on Dec. 15, 2005, Missoula Police Detective Jeff Dobie detailed his reasoning for seeking forfeiture of Catalanello’s 2000 black Ford crew cab pickup truck. The police seized Catalanello’s truck on Nov. 28, 2005 when they arrested him in a sting operation.
According to Dobie, Missoula police arrested a woman on Nov. 23, 2005 for trying to fraudulently obtain prescription drugs at a local pharmacy. The woman told officers that she wasn’t acting alone, and that her former doctor, Mark Catalanello, was calling in hydrocodone prescriptions using other doctor’s names.
The woman told police “Catalanello would call the prescriptions in and then would give her money to pay for the prescriptions as well as drive her around to the pharmacies so she could pick up the prescriptions.”
The woman said Catalanello “would keep half of the prescriptions and she would get to keep half of the prescriptions.”
According to court records, the informant told police Catalanello first called in a prescription for her using another doctor’s name in October of 2005. The source estimated that Catalanello “called in approximately 15 fraudulent prescriptions for Lortab between October of 2005 and November 22, 2005.”
The source told police that on Nov. 22, 2005, Catalanello called in prescriptions to five different pharmacies and the pair obtained 460 Lortab (hydrocodone) pills.
According to the document, the informant called Dobie on Nov. 28, 2005, and informed him that Catalanello had called her. Two investigators went to the source’s residence, and when Catalanello called again the detectives listened in.
“It was evident from the recorded phone conversations that Mark Catalanello was a willing participant and was in fact the controlling factor in calling in the prescriptions,” Dobie told the court in his affidavit.
Catalanello allegedly went to the source’s residence to bring her “half a dozen Lortab to hold her over until they could fill the prescriptions he had called in.”
When Catalanello showed up he was met by the police detectives and arrested, the document states.
“During the search incident to arrest Missoula Police Officer Richtmyer discovered that Mark Catalanello had in his pocket prescription labels dated 11/22/05 that were peeled from Hydrocodone prescriptions bearing the names Diane Chelet and Dr. Wilson [the names Catalanello had allegedly used to call in the fraudulent prescriptions],” Dobie stated.
According to the document officers at the detention center discovered that Catalanello also had in his wallet a prescription label from the Safeway Pharmacy dated Oct. 3, 2005 and the doctor name on the prescription was another name Catalanello had allegedly fraudulently used to obtain prescription drugs.
A search of Catalanello’s truck and fanny pack allegedly turned up additional fraudulently obtained pills and prescriptions, including one prescription that was written to a Montana State Prison inmate. A doctor at the prison told the detective “there is no legal way that a prescription for a prison inmate should have been in Mark Catalanello’s vehicle.”
On Nov. 29 a judge ordered Catalanello’s pickup truck be forfeited to the Missoula City Police Department.
According to a criminal history report, Catalanello was charged with one felony count of fraudulently obtaining dangerous drugs, but there is no publicly available record of whether he was found guilty of that charge. Deputy County Attorney Suzy Boylan, who responded to calls about the case, refused to comment citing the court-ordered seal.
The questions I have sought to answer throughout this investigation are myriad, and they remain unanswered to this point.
Why did the court seal the criminal record of a two-time felony drug offender?
Why did the Montana Board of Medical Examiners reinstate Catalanello’s license after he washed-out of mandated drug treatment multiple times and was arrested on a subsequent felony drug arrest?
Did Catalanello get special treatment from the court or prosecutors because he is a doctor?
How much did state officials know about Catalanello’s past when they hired him to work at the Montana State Hospital in 2007, then at MCDC in 2012?
Is it appropriate for someone who has a history of felony drug arrests and a well-documented history of addiction and relapse to oversee the care of patients who are receiving court-ordered chemical dependency treatment?
How many complaints has DPHHS received from staff or patients at MCDC or MSP?
Did the state open itself up to a potential liability by hiring Catalanello?
These are some of the questions I will seek to answer in the coming days and weeks now that this story has broken. I will also work to get some of the documents I referenced in this report published on the MTFP for public review.
Here are a links to the documents referenced in the report above:
If you have more information about this case or have a tip, contact the MTFP at firstname.lastname@example.org.