Ridgewood psychiatrist accused of allowing wife to see patients, write prescriptions
By Lindy Washburn
July 1, 2016
A 72-year-old Ridgewood psychiatrist who practiced from his home office allowed his wife, a clinical social worker, to see patients and write prescriptions he had signed in advance while he was too sick to work and sometimes confined at a nursing home or hospital, the state alleges.
Dr. James Cowan Jr. has temporarily given up his medical license amid accusations that he indiscriminately prescribed Xanax and Adderall, two addictive drugs, and helped his wife, Maryanne L. Cowan, to do so.
State investigators visited Cowan in a Paramus rehabilitation center in May after inspecting his office and interviewing his wife, his office manager, and a patient who showed up unexpectedly.
Cowan told them that “he believed that after being married for 30 years, he had taught [Maryanne] everything she needed to know to be able to medically treat the patients with his consent,” according to the state’s order to suspend Cowan’s license to prescribe controlled substances.
“He believed that her license as a clinical social worker and her experience was adequate to provide care to the patients that presented to his office,” the filing said. Cowan’s attorney participated by speakerphone.
The investigators went to the nursing home after his office manager told them she had visited him there that morning, and brought him patient files and prescription blanks, which he pre-signed for her to take back to the office.
Cowan told the investigators that his house had been broken into several times and blank prescription pads had been stolen. The state noted that he had not reported the theft, as required by law.
Cowan’s office manager told investigators that some patients became aggressive, according to the documents. Rather than stay in the home’s basement office area, they “would wander to the private upstairs bedroom area to find [Cowan] or his wife,” and not wait to be seen, she said.
Several made threats to “expose” what was going on at the practice, and she suspected one of breaking in and ransacking the Cowans’ garage, the documents said.
The office manager said prescriptions for controlled substances were sometimes left in the mailbox or on the porch in sealed envelopes labeled with the patients’ names for them to pick up after hours.
At the time of the investigators’ visit to Cowan’s office, his wife said he had been a patient in a hospital or nursing home for two months, the filing said.
Maryanne Cowan admitted that she had written prescriptions for controlled substances for “numerous patients” while he was out of the office, and was “trying to help the patients.”
Investigators interviewed a patient who arrived. He told them he had been referred by a friend to get prescriptions for Xanax and Adderall, and had visited in February and March and paid $200 cash each time, the legal filing said. He had been seen only by Mrs. Cowan, who gave him scrips for 60 pills of each drug at each of his visits, he told investigators.
The state also alleges that a majority of the patient records examined lacked any documentation about the medical necessity for the medications.
James Cowan is now barred from practicing medicine and writing prescriptions for controlled substances until the state Board of Medical Examiners acts on his case. He was also required to return all prescription pads.
A state spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny whether Maryanne Cowan was under investigation by the Board of Social Work.
In a statement, the head of the state Division of Consumer Affairs, Steve Lee, said, “Prescription drug addiction is a nationwide issue and we will not tolerate members of the medical community contributing to the problem by putting drugs into the hands of patients who don’t legitimately need them.”
There was no answer at Cowan’s office phone on Friday, but the recording on the answering machine used the title “Doctor” for both Cowan and his wife, and described the practice as involved in psychiatry, addiction medicine, forensic medicine, and alternative medicine.
Cowan previously was chief of psychiatry at East Orange General Hospital. He is a 1970 graduate of the Meharry Medical College School of Medicine, and did his residencies at Harlem Hospital Center.
His father, also James R. Cowan, had a private medical and surgical practice for years in East Orange. He was a state health commissioner in New Jersey and served in the Nixon administration as assistant secretary of defense for health and environmental services. He later was president and CEO of United Hospitals Medical Center in Newark until his retirement.
The elder Cowan was indicted in 1990 on charges of accepting bribes, and pleaded guilty to a count of corporate misconduct, according to his 1995 obituary in The New York Times.