Patients traveled hundreds of miles to see Dr. Andrzej Zielke in Pittsburgh, eager for a steady flow of prescriptions for the kinds of powerful painkillers that ushered the U.S. into its worst drug crisis in history, the Associated Press reports. At least one of Zielke’s patients died of an overdose, and prosecutors say others became so dependent on oxycodone and other opioids they would crowd his office. The doctor who offered ozone therapy and herbal pain remedies was also prescribing highly addictive narcotics to patients who didn’t need them, according to an indictment charging him with conspiracy and unlawfully distributing controlled substances. Zielke denied he was overprescribing, saying he practiced alternative medicine. His indictment was the first by a nationwide group of federal law enforcement officials that, armed with new access to a broader array of prescription drug databases, Medicaid and Medicare figures, coroners’ records and other numbers compiled by the Justice Department, aims to stop fraudulent doctors.
The department is providing data to the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit that shows which doctors are prescribing the most, how far patients will travel to see them and whether any have died within 60 days of receiving one of their prescriptions. Authorities have been going after so-called “pill mills” for years, but the new approach brings more federal resources to bear against the escalating epidemic. Where prosecutors would spend months or longer building a case by relying on erratic informants and limited data, the number-crunching by analysts provides information they say lets them quickly zero in on a region’s top opioid prescribers. Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general, told AP that DOJ will consider going after any law-breaker, even a pharmaceutical company, as it seeks to bring more cases and reduce the number of unwarranted prescriptions.