I-Team: Tax Dollars Funding Rx Drug Epidemic

Simply because a doctor’s name appears on the list of top prescribers does not mean that doctor is practicing in an illegal or unethical manner

Doctors who are in jail or under investigation and accused of prescribing narcotics to addicts have cost taxpayers millions in Medicaid dollars for many of those prescriptions, the I-Team has learned.

In fact, a recent list of New York’s top ten prescribers of Oxycontin -- or similar generics of Oxycodone -- includes two doctors facing trial, a third who was recently arrested by federal agents, another who recently lost his license to prescribe and a fifth whose practice has been under investigation by the DEA.

The list, obtained by the I-Team, outlines prescriptions that were covered by Medicaid in 2011 and shows exactly how much taxpayers shelled out based on each doctor’s recommendations and the specific number of prescriptions each doctor approved.

At the top of the list, in terms of dollars, is Dr. Christian Nahas, whose Island Park clinic recently closed. Records from the New York State Department of Health show, in 2011, Nahas signed off on 917 Oxycodone prescriptions and Medicaid was billed $640,739.

Approached by NBC 4 New York at his Island Park office, Nahas declined to comment. His license to prescribe controlled substances was suspended just a few weeks after the I-Team requested the Medicaid list.

Regulators would not say why they took his prescription pad.

Second on the list is Dr. Tomasito Virey. Medicaid was billed $414,421 in 2011 -- covering 3,208 individual prescriptions signed by Dr. Virey.

Virey, who operates a clinic on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx, did not want to talk on camera, but over the phone told the I-Team that the DEA had told him to reduce his patient load by 50 percent.

He offered an explanation for Medicaid records that show he wrote an average of 60 oxy prescriptions a week.

“We have a lot, a lot, a lot of sick patients and I do not prescribe prescriptions without MRIs and without convincing myself that the patient needs it and without analyzing whether the patient is in withdrawal or is getting addicted,” said Virey, who told the I-Team that he also takes Oxycodone for pain associated with severe ulcers.

Dr. Eric Jacobson is number three on the list of high volume Oxycodone prescribers. Jacobson recently pleaded not guilty to charges that he knowingly prescribed to addicts.

He’s accused of supplying pills to Medford Pharmacy killer David Laffer.

John Martin, a defense attorney who is fighting to get Jacobson’s medical license reinstated, said his client had good reason to dole out large numbers of Oxycodone pills last year.

“He had a mature practice and patients build up a certain tolerance.  So if you have a lot of patients who have been with you for a long time, they are going to require more pills,” Martin said.

Counselors who treat prescription drug addiction say some physicians amass large stables of patients precisely because they are known to be easy targets for drug-seeking addicts.

“We’ve gone to law enforcement about doctors in our community whose names we hear time and time again and we hear the horror stories,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Federal agents arrested the fourth doctor on the list, Dr. Rohan L Wijetilaka, last week. He’s accused of distributing oxycodone and conspiracy to distribute oxycodone. Calls to Wijetilaka’s lawyer were not returned.

Wijetilaka’s license to practice was revoked three months after the I-Team obtained the Medicaid prescriber’s list. A panel with the state Office of Professional Medical Conduct found him guilty of multiple counts of gross incompetence, negligence, performing unwarranted tests and failing to keep records. He was also fined $50,000.

Simply because a doctor’s name appears on the list of top prescribers does not mean that doctor is practicing in an illegal or unethical manner, but Reynolds believes local police and the DEA should scrutinize the list and use it as an investigative tool.

Reynolds said many of the names on the list are familiar to him and his drug-addicted clients.

“Yet they still continue to practice,” said Reynolds. “Still continue to write prescriptions and still continue to poison our community.”

Dr. William Conway is awaiting trial on charges that he illegally prescribed to addicts, including Chris Basmas, 29, who died of an overdose last year.

“They’re trying to portray him as a drug pusher, but he never made a dime,” claimed Conway’s lawyer, Richard Langone.

Asked if Conway was a good or naive doctor, Langone said, “He’s good and he’s naïve." Langone explained that his client was duped by drug addicts and fooled by doctor-shoppers into writing many Oxycodone prescriptions billed to Medicaid.

Langone believes Conway is number six on the Medicaid list because most of his patients are poor and uninsured.

“He would take poor people,” said Langone. “He would take people that couldn’t afford doctors. He would take you if you couldn’t afford to pay.”

The family of Chris Basmas isn’t buying it.

“With doctors like that out there, they’re only fueling the epidemic,” said Basmas’ sister, Cindy Russo. “It’s almost like it’s a ticking time bomb.”

Russo and her mother, Maria Basmas, believe future overdoses could be prevented if high-volume prescribers would put away their prescription pads.

“It’s only a matter of time before more bodies start showing up,” said Russo.

Many of the pills that fed Basmas’ addiction were paid for by tax dollars -- through Medicaid.

“The fact that he was able to fill multiple prescriptions in one month and Medicaid was paying for it is scary,” said Russo.

In 2011, the top ten prescribers of Oxycodone in New York led to Medicaid billings of $2,709,021.

NOTE: A doctor’s name on this list does not indicate that doctor has done anything illegal or unethical. The information contained is publicly available.

This is first article in a series.  Read the second article here.

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