President Donald Trump noted as one of the worst problems besetting the country is the abuse of a class of painkillers known as opioids, which are peddled by traffickers throughout the country and contributing to addiction and death. In the first indictment by the federal government since Attorney General Jeff Sessions formed the Opioid and Abuse Detection Unit of the Department of Justice, a Pennsylvania physician is facing an indictment by a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh on charges of conspiracy and unlawfully distributing controlled substances. Andrzej Kazimierz Zielke, 62, is the first to face an indictment by the specially-formed unit that uses specialized data to target and prosecute individuals that are contributing to the nation’s opioid crisis. 

“Today we are facing the worst drug crisis in American history, with one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes,” said  Sessions.  “An unprecedented crisis like this one demands an unprecedented response—and that’s why President Trump has made this a top priority for this administration," Sessions said, according to a release. "This summer, I designated a dozen of our top federal prosecutors to focus solely on the problem of opioid-related health care fraud in places where the epidemic was at its worst--including Western Pennsylvania. These cases take on the supply of drugs and stop fraudsters from exploiting people suffering from addiction. Today, as President Trump unveils his plan to fight the opioid epidemic, we have filed the first charges by these prosecutors. We will file many more charges in the months to come—because the Department of Justice will be relentless in hunting down drug dealers and turning the tide of this epidemic.”

“Western Pennsylvania is experiencing some of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the nation,” added Acting U.S. Attorney Song.  “In response, we in law enforcement aggressively target drug traffickers – both those who distribute on the street, and those who traffic under the guise of physicians writing excessive prescriptions.”               

“Opioid-related health care fraud is a serious problem facing the Western Pennsylvania area today,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Johnson.

“Doctors who betray their trust and authority for their own financial gain by prescribing Schedule II narcotics for purposes other than medical reasons are contributing to our nation’s opioid crisis.  This indictment is indicative of the FBI’s intent to employ substantial resources to combat this national epidemic.  The FBI Pittsburgh Division will continue to work with our law enforcement partners in a unified effort to address the local effects of this national trend.”

According to the 14-count indictment that was returned on October 24, Zielke is a medical doctor who owned and operated Medical Frontiers, which advertised itself as a holistic pain management practice. It is located in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb.  The indictment alleges that on 13 occasions Zielke prescribed Schedule II narcotics - Oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine sulfate and methadone – outside the usual course of professional practice and not for legitimate medical purpose.  The indictment also alleges that Zielke conspired with others to distribute Schedule II narcotics.  On October 5, Zielke was arrested on a criminal complaint.  The complaint alleges that Dr. Zielke engaged in a pattern of illegally prescribing opioid painkillers to patients with no legitimate medical purpose and without examination, evaluation or testing.

According to the criminal complaint:

Agents began investigating his practice based on information they received that Dr. Zielke was writing a large number of oxycodone prescriptions for people residing in the McKeesport, Pennsylvania area, and that some of these pills were being obtained by a narcotics dealer.  

According to accounts of former employees and patients, Dr. Zielke charged approximately $250 cash for office visits and many of his patients traveled long distances to see him. 

On October 11, 2017, the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine issued a Temporary Suspension of Dr. Zielke’s license to practice medicine and surgery. 

The law provides for a maximum total sentence of 20 years in prison, a fine of $1 million, or both, for each count of the indictment.  Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the actual sentence imposed would be based upon the seriousness of the offenses and the prior criminal history, if any, of the defendant.

President Donald Trump directed the secretary of Health and Human Services to declare a public health emergency over the opioid epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the epidemic of opioid abuse has caused 33,000 overdose deaths in 2015 alone. In August, Trump called it a "national emergency." Opioids include drugs such as heroin, fentanyl, morphine, and prescription painkiller OxyContin. Death rates from opioids in rural areas of the country have surpassed those in U.S. cities. The public health emergency declaration would expand the use of telemedicine for prescribing so that a doctor could treat a patient in a remote area where fewer physicians are available to prescribe medicines that help patients with symptoms of withdrawal from the drugs.

The Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis is overseen by Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and was created by Trump. Praising Trump for the "bold action," Christie said in a statement: "By using the Public Health Service Act, as we recommended, the president is showing an unprecedented commitment to fighting this epidemic and placing the weight of the presidency behind saving lives across the country." 

Also on Thursday, the billionaire founder of Insys Therapeutics was arrested on federal charges that he was part of a scheme to bribe doctors to prescribe a fentanyl-based cancer pain drug and to defraud insurers.The 74-year-old John Kapoor stepped down as the chief executive of Insys in January and is now charged with having engaged in conspiracies to commit racketeering, mail fraud, and wire fraud in an indictment filed in federal court in Boston. Kapoor was arrested in Arizona, and has been added as a defendant in a previously filed case against six former Insys executives and managers, including former Chief Executive Michael Babich, according to prosecutors.

Insys has declined to comment. Its stock price fell more than 20 percent to $5.92 in midafternoon trading on Thursday. The charges against billionaire Kapoor are an escalation of the ongoing investigations of Insys related to Subsys, an under-the-tongue spray that contains fentanyl, a highly addictive synthetic opioid.

Kapoor is currently the chairman of drugmaker Akorn and president of investment firm EJ Financial Enterprises.

 



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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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