Doctors, patients arrested in 'doctor-shopping' bust

June 6, 2012 3:16:22 PM PDT
Narcotics investigators call it "doctor shopping" and say Johanna Pecci was particularly good at it.

During a monthlong odyssey through four of New York City's five boroughs, the 47-year-old Staten Island mother visited eight doctors who wrote nine prescriptions for oxycodone she filled at seven pharmacies, prosecutors said.

The effort netted 1,798 pills with a potential street value of tens of thousands of dollars - "not bad for eight days' work," Staten Island District Attorney Daniel Donovan said Wednesday.

At a news conference, Donovan and other state and federal officials announced charges against Pecci and 97 other people, including two doctors - a crackdown they said illustrates how a thriving black market for highly addictive prescription painkillers now rivals those for cocaine and heroin.

"Prescription drug abuse is the silent epidemic of our time," Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said.

The announcement was billed as a joint initiative to combat the threat, though the charges were a culmination of separate, unrelated investigations by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the New York Police Department and authorities in Nassau and Suffolk County on Long Island.

It comes just weeks before the first anniversary of a Long Island pharmacy robbery that left four people dead. The killer, David Laffer, was in search of prescription painkillers when he gunned down two store employees and two customers last year on Father's Day.

The defendants named Wednesday include two doctors and a nurse practitioner, all on Long Island, who prescribed hundreds of thousands of pills to people they knew were either hooked on painkillers or were reselling them for profit, prosecutors said.

On each visit, the buyers typically saw the medical professionals only for a few minutes and paid $200 or more in cash, authorities said. Many of them already had criminal convictions for drug offenses.

Investigators uncovered the abuses through record searches that showed unusual increases in prescriptions written and filled or an absence of proper documentation. They also relied on wiretaps and doctors' employees who became confidential informants.

During an appointment in March, a nurse practitioner "failed to perform even a cursory evaluation" on an undercover investigator posing as a patient before writing a prescription for oxycodone, court papers say. Less than three weeks later, the undercover paid $450 to get more pills from the same source, again with no questions asked.

Pecci, the woman prosecutors accuse of being a doctor shopper, was to be arraigned Thursday on possession of a controlled substance and other charges in an indictment.

Prosecutors say Pecci was originally arrested for shoplifting December. When it was discovered she was carrying 50 oxycodone pills, investigators began checking her prescription history.

Her attorney, Stephen McCarthy, said Wednesday that he hadn't seen the new indictment.

"I know her to be a mother of two children who had a legitimate prescription for painkillers," the lawyer said. "We'll wait to see what the indictment indicates."

Last month, Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota released a grand jury report calling for sweeping changes in state law to address what he called a growing epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse. "Clearly there are physicians and pharmacists who know that they are providing painkillers to addicts," Spota said at a news conference, calling them "no different than drug dealers."

Laffer, an admitted drug addict, pleaded guilty to murdering four people before fleeing with a backpack jammed with painkillers. Laffer admitted at his sentencing that he also engaged in doctor shopping in the weeks and months preceding the slayings.

Associated Press writer Frank Eltman on Long Island contributed to this report

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