In Los Angeles, 14 people have been charged with running a scheme to obtain OxyContin pills through insurance fraud and distribute them on the street for millions of dollars in profits. The drug distribution ring included two doctors and the operators of a clinic owned by Lake Medical Group. Members of the ring are suspected of reselling more than 1 million OxyContin pills on the street.
According to federal officials, the clinic’s doctors wrote fraudulent prescriptions for the powerful painkiller and billed Medicare and Medical. Most of the prescriptions were written for patients who did not need a painkiller.
Members of the ring are also alleged to have committed identity theft and used stolen Medicare beneficiary information to obtain OxyContin. Among those charged were Dr. Morris Halfnon, aged 88, Dr. Eleanor Santiago, aged 73, and pharmacist Theodore Yoon.
The clinic used recruiters, referred to as “cappers,” who offered Medicare and Medi-Cal patients up to $500 to fill prescriptions for OxyContin at local pharmacies, including Yoon’s. Runners escorted patients to pharmacies and then took the pills from them. The pills, which cost about $6 each, were sold on the street for about $25 per pill. The prescriptions written by Lake Medical Group were not reported to the California state prescription monitoring system.
Members of the OxyContin distribution ring face charges of heath care fraud and conspiracy. The group is also charged with billing Medi-Cal and Medicare for more than $6 million for medical procedures that were not required or were never performed. Possible sentences for the charges range from 10 to 40 years for each suspect.
This case is one of several involving Los Angeles doctors who have written large numbers of illegal prescriptions for OxyContin and other addictive prescription drugs.
• In August, authorities arrested members of a smuggling ring who were taking OxyContin and other narcotic prescription drugs across the border to Mexico to be sold over the counter in Mexican pharmacies to mostly Americans. Dr. Tyron Reece, a 71-year-old physician from Inglewood, was charged with writing prescriptions for over 900,000 OxyContin and Vicodin tablets in a single year.
• In July, 72-year-old Dr. Nazar Al Bussum plead guilty to writing more than 60,000 illegal prescriptions for OxyContin, methadone, Soma, Xanax and other addictive prescription drugs. According to the Los Angeles Times, the doctor was associated with at least 5 drug-related deaths. He could have received a sentence of up to 230 years, but because of his age received instead a 7-year sentence.
The common thread in these cases is that the doctors are older and past the age of retirement. It’s unknown why they chose to end their careers by disgracing their profession and causing harm to so many people. These doctors appear to have let greed overshadow their responsibility as doctors to do no harm to their patients.
In today’s changing climate of addiction, where prescription drug abuse has surpassed illegal drug abuse, the drug dealers are often members of the medical profession. This again became evident this week in a Los Angeles federal courtroom when Dr. Nazar Al Bussum pled guilty to drug distribution charges. The 72-year-old geriatric physician, who lives in the exclusive community of Newport Coast but operated clinics in Downy and Los Angeles, could be sentenced to as many as 230 years in prison and fined up to $11.5 million.
Al Bussum is charged with writing prescriptions for narcotic painkillers, codeine cough syrup and anti-anxiety medication for patients who had no medical need for the drugs. The majority of the prescriptions were for oxycodone, hydrocodone and Xanax – all highly addictive substances. Federal prosecutors estimate that he wrote more than 60,000 prescriptions between 2007 and 2010, making as much as $1 million per year by prescribing drugs that often ended up being sold on the street.
Federal investigators targeted Al Bussum after his name showed up as one of the top 10 prescribers of controlled prescription drugs in the Los Angeles area. During the investigation, some of the drugs prescribed by Al Bussum were tracked to street-level drug dealers in California and Texas.
According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, Al Bussum wrote prescriptions for cash-paying customers including undercover DEA agents. Agents reported that the only question he asked patients was “what drug do you want?” He wrote prescriptions without doing a medical exam or ascertaining that the patient had a legitimate medical problem. One undercover agent even told Al Bussum that he was using oxycodone for recreational purposes and still was given a prescription for the drug.
In a prepared statement, U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. charged Al Bussum with abusing his position in the medical profession to line his pockets. He violated his oath as a doctor to ‘do no harm’ and contributed to the problem of prescription drug abuse.
As part of a plea agreement, Al Bussum pled guilty to an 18-count indictment. He also agreed to forfeit $450,000 in cash that was found in a search of his home at the time of his arrest. He is barred from practicing medicine or writing prescriptions before his sentencing, which is expected to take place in October. According to the Orange County Register, Al Bussum’s guilty plea is most likely part of a legal strategy aimed at getting his case into appeal. His attorney, Benjamin Gluck, will attempt to introduce evidence that the doctor wrote prescriptions to treat drug addiction. Al Bussum is currently free on bond.
According to an article written by the LA Times, the heroin use in Glendale and La Crescenta is rising as LA based gangs make their way into these suburbs and educate and give away the drug to users who are “at risk”of addiction and overdose.
Per the Glendale Police, all drug related offenses that were investigated in the Crescenta Valley during the month of January were attributed to heroin.
This comes at a time when a variety of factors is leading the nation’s youths and young adults into a dangerous love affair with opiates and other drugs like ecstasy, inhalants, meth. The factors are as disparate as prescription drug legislation and the geopolitical climate that affects Afghanistan (the source of much of the world’s heroin). The global economy and the United State’s proximity to Mexico also have an influence on this “perfect storm” for heroin overdose (read an article about Three Unlikely Partners in Crime: Afghanistan, Mexico, and Prescription Drugs Manufacturers).
Why is this relevant to our StopOxy.com blog? If you are paying attention to the opiate epidemic and the rash of overdoses in the U.S. you will see that many of the heroin overdoses were by users who “graduated” to smoking and then shooting heroin after getting hooked on pharmaceutical drugs like OxyContin and Vicodin. Heroin overdoses have moved into the suburbs of middle and upper class neighborhoods… a reflection on the middle class high schooler’s attraction to using “pharmies” like OxyContin and recreationally.
Just because the end result is a heroin overdose, doesn’t mean that heroin is solely to blame. The point of entry is almost always more innocuous drugs like marijuana, alcohol, cigarettes, or a “pill from my parents’ medicine cabinet.”
Police Chief Ron De Pompa of Glendale points out the connection to OxyContin in the L.A. Times Article: “With the rise of prescription pill use, some teens are also engaging in a trend known as “cabinet parties,” De Pompa said.
”Teens raid their parent’s medicine cabinet for opiates such as Vicodin and Oxycontin, and take them to the party, where the pills are dumped into a large bowl for communal use,” he said.
If you are a parent of a teenager then this concept of a cabinet party should alarm you. The potential for overdose at an event like this is very high… the potential for contributing to a developing opiate addiction at an event like this is ever present.
According to Nora D. Volkow, MD. The Director of the National Institute on drug Abuse, the best way to prevent drug abuse in your children is to address the problem at an early age. “In other words… be a parent” says Dr. Volkow. “Parents are incredibly important in raising drug-free kids, but in many instances they are not there or are not involved”
NIDA has posted a special page with information for parents on their website here:
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