Former Valley doctors named in Justice Department's opioid allegations against Rite Aid
The U.S. Department of Justice is citing the cases of three former Valley doctors as examples to support allegations that the Rite Aid pharmacy chain contributed to the nation’s opioid epidemic by illegally filling prescriptions for controlled substances.
Former doctors Jorge Martinez of Boardman, William Paloski of Canfield, and Martin Escobar of Lake Milton are among other physicians named in a complaint intervening in a whistleblower lawsuit brought under the False Claims Act against Rite Aid Corporation and various subsidiaries.
The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Cleveland on Monday, alleges that Rite Aid filled unlawful prescriptions for controlled substances and violated the Controlled Substances Act.
"The Justice Department is using every tool at our disposal to confront the opioid epidemic that is killing Americans and shattering communities across the country," said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. "That includes holding corporations, like Rite Aid, accountable for knowingly filling unlawful prescriptions for controlled substances.”
The government claims that, from May 2014 through June 2019, Rite Aid filled hundreds of thousands of illegal prescriptions for controlled substances that lacked a legitimate medical purpose, were not for medically accepted indications, or were not issued in the usual course of professional practice.
According to the complaint, the unlawful prescriptions those for the dangerous and highly abused combination of drugs known as "the trinity," prescriptions for excessive quantities of opioids, such as oxycodone and fentanyl, and prescriptions issued by prescribers whom Rite Aid pharmacists had repeatedly identified internally as writing illegitimate prescriptions.
Rite Aid pharmacists allegedly filled these prescriptions despite clear "red flags" that were highly indicative that the prescriptions were unlawful, ignoring evidence that its stores were dispensing unlawful prescriptions and failing to act by intentionally deleting internal notes about suspicious prescribers written by Rite Aid pharmacists and directing district managers to tell pharmacists "to be mindful of everything that is put in writing."
Justice Department officials say that Rite Aid sought reimbursement from federal healthcare programs.
The 248-page complaint cites what it says are specific examples of illegal dispensing in ten states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Stating that the opioid epidemic in Ohio has been “disastrous”, the complaint cites CDC reports that over the past six years, more than 7,272 Ohioans have died from overdoses of prescription opioids, which is the highest in the country.
The Justice Department believes that those numbers may dramatically underestimate deaths from opioids because they ignore opioid-related complications to infectious diseases, such as pneumonia.
In 2016, Ohio had more prescription opioid deaths than any other state in the nation, with one of every 11 deaths from prescription opioids in the United States occurring in Ohio.
That same year prescription opioids caused the deaths of 2,875 Ohio residents, a 60% increase compared to 2015, says the complaint.
In 2016 alone, 2.3 million Ohio patients - roughly 20% of the State's population - were prescribed an opioid drug.
According to public data from the Drug Enforcement Agency, more than 20 tons of prescription opioids were distributed in Ohio from 2013-2016.
The Ohio Automated RX Reporting System showed that in 2016, the "average" county in Ohio received saw distributions of approximately 65 pills per person per year (including children) and several Ohio counties have seen annual distributions exceeding 100 opioid pills for every man, woman and child and 1,000 pills per user.
Citing what it described as “Rite Aid's gross inadequacies in the performance of its due diligence obligations,” the Justice Department’s complaint underscored examples of illegal prescribing and abuse activities in Ohio.
The complaint names three former Valley doctors among other Ohio health professionals who the Justice Department says were not blocked by Rite Aid “despite their prescribing habits rising to a criminal level.”
Jorge A. Martinez, M.D. of Boardman was found guilty in 2006 of mail fraud, wire fraud, violations of the Controlled Substances Act, and health care fraud resulting in death.
Martinez was sentenced to life in prison.
Dr. William G. Paloski of Canfield was sentenced to five years’ probation after pleading guilty to a fraction of the 78 charges he faced following an investigation into his practices involving prescription painkillers.
Paloski entered what is known as an Alford Plea to five felony charges including attempted illegal processing of drug documents, possession of dangerous drugs, and trafficking in drugs.
Investigators say Paloski illegally prescribed painkillers such as Tramadol and Codeine for no legitimate medical reason from his office on Market Street in Youngstown.
Former Lake Milton doctor Martin Escobar was sentenced to 25 years in prison for causing deaths of two patients.
Prosecutors says Escobar ignored signs of addiction and other signs that his actions were causing harm to his patients.
Escobar pleaded guilty to 54 counts of illegally providing controlled substances including two counts of distributing controlled substances causing the deaths of two patients and one count of distributing controlled substances to someone under 21 years old.
Escobar was also convicted of 31 counts of health care fraud.
"Pharmacies, physicians, corporations, and other health care entities that have contributed to the proliferation of opioids in our communities and the tragic loss of life from overdose deaths must answer for their role in the crisis we now face," said First Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle M. Baeppler for the Northern District of Ohio. "This complaint is a continuation of the Justice Department's commitment to hold accountable those entities that aggravated and profited from the opioid crisis."
Asked for a response, a spokesperson for Rite Aid told 21 News they do not comment on pending litigation.
Last June the Trumbull County Commissioners accepted a settlement of $2,248,985 from Rite Aid and Giant Eagle, which were named in a separate civil lawsuit filed in federal court alleging that they contributed to the opioid crisis in local communities.
The county received $1,123,985 from Rite Aid, and $1,125,000 from Giant Eagle, which is the county’s share of the settlement after legal costs.
The suit against Rite Aid, Giant Eagle, and other pharmacies claimed that between 2000 and 2014, 68 million doses of opioids were dispensed in Trumbull County. With a population of 209,000, attorneys say that is the equivalent of 320 pills for every resident during the period.
The settlement will be paid in installments over fifteen years.