Federal prosecutors say a Bronx pain clinic sold prescriptions for as much as half a billion dollars worth of oxycodone to thousands of "patients" who were really drug dealers and addicts.
The medical chain, called Astramed, has been a source of complaints from Bronx neighbors and lawmakers for several years. In 2012, the I-Team revealed how crowds of drug-seeking buyers, often driving vehicles with out-of-state license plates, gathered daily at an Astramed office on Westchester Avenue in Castle Hill.
One Astramed patient told the I-Team she went to the pain clinic for legitimate medical reasons, but she was only briefly examined and then given an excessive amount of oxycodone. The 37-year-old patient, who asked that her identity be kept secret, said she eventually became addicted.
“It’s a pill mill -- this is the type of practice you can go to, no questions asked,” said the patient. “And now I’m addicted to something that people prescribe to you."
According to an indictment unsealed in federal court Wednesday, Dr. Kevin Lowe, owner of the Astramed chain, relied on “board certified, state licensed doctors who, in exchange for cash, were willing to write medically unnecessary prescriptions for large quantities of oxycodone.”
In total, Lowe and his associates are said to have sold 5.5 million oxycodone tablets with a street value of up to $550 million between January 2011 and last month. That amounts to what prosecutors said were 31,500 medically unnecessary prescriptions. Attorney information for Lowe was not immediately available.
U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said Lowe’s medical clinic was so profitable it “would make hardened illegal drug traffickers envious.”
Federal investigators say Lowe reaped $12 million in fees for doctor visits and violated federal law by charging cash for thousands of medically unnecessary prescriptions written by the doctors working for him.
One of those doctors, Robert Terdiman, is also charged separately under New York State law with criminal sale of prescriptions. Terdiman’s court-appointed attorney, Herschel Katz, said he could not discuss specifics of the case, but said his client pleaded not guilty to all charges against him. Terdiman is being held in jail until a judge will hear bail arguments on Feb. 19.
According to the indictment, one Astramed doctor allegedly wrote 126 prescriptions for oxycodone in one day last August.
Terdiman is the only doctor working for Lowe who was charged criminally. The U.S. Attorney's office did not comment on why other doctors were not charged.
When the I-Team contacted Astramed offices Wednesday, an attendant said Terdiman's offices were closed and did not answer further questions.
Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget Brennan suggested putting Terdiman out of business would be an immediate benefit to public health.
"To the extent you're able to shut down a major supplier to the black market, you are going to save lives," she said. "Over 4,200 individuals received prescriptions at this clinic in the Bronx."
According to records obtained by the I-Team, Virey was the second most prolific Medicaid prescriber of oxycodone in the entire state of New York during 2011. Virey was not charged in the take-down of Astramed, and his name is no longer listed on the clinic’s website.
When the I-Team initially asked Virey about why he prescribed such a high volume of drugs, he told the I-Team “I cannot answer that.” In a separate phone conversation he said the Drug Enforcement Administration had recently instructed him to cut his oxycodone prescriptions by half and he did so.
When Astramed doctors became stingy with pills, investigators said the drug dealers who relied on the clinic became angry.
According to federal court documents, when one doctor announced he would not be accepting any additional “patients,” he was “threatened at gun point just outside of the Westchester Ave. Office by three masked individuals upset that [he] was not writing more medically unnecessary prescriptions.”
Along with doctors Lowe and Terdiman, 23 other people have been charged with playing various roles in the scheme to sell oxycodone prescriptions. Those roles include medical office workers who controlled access to the doctors and allegedly created false documents and so-called “bouncers,” and “crew chiefs” who were responsible for rounding up phony patients and enforcing strict rules that they should not talk to police.