Special grand jury to probe doctor shopping

File photos of David Laffer and his wife,

File photos of David Laffer and his wife, Melinda Brady. (Credit: Victor Alcorn; Newsday / John Paraskevas, 2011)

A special grand jury will be empaneled in Suffolk County to investigate doctor shopping and the possible criminal conduct of physicians in the prescribing of painkiller pills.

Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said the grand jury will also examine the effectiveness of a state database that tracks painkiller abuse.

Newsday reported Friday that David Laffer and his wife, Melinda Brady, filled prescriptions for almost 12,000 pain pills from dozens of doctors in the four years before Laffer walked into Haven Drugs in Medford on Father's Day and murdered four people. During an 11-day period before the June 19 killings, Laffer filled six prescriptions for more than 400 pills from five doctors.

Spota revealed that members of his staff interviewed Laffer and Brady after their sentencing earlier this month.

He said the couple "said some doctors were complicit" in providing them painkillers. He declined to provide further details as to what Laffer and his wife told investigators.

"How can two people go to so many doctors seeking powerful, addictive narcotics and no one notice?" Spota said in the interview in his Hauppauge office. "Or if they did notice, fail to take action or even care to take action?"

Prescription painkiller abuse has exploded across the region, with oxycodone contributing to more overdose deaths on Long Island last year than heroin.

 

Grand jury to review rules

Spota said the grand jury would review state rules for monitoring painkiller prescriptions. He said the panel would focus on how quickly the information is made available, what ethical obligations doctors and pharmacists have in reporting patterns of painkiller abuse, as well as what he described as "overprescribing" by medical professionals.

The grand jury will probably call state Health Department officials, as well as state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement investigators, to testify, Spota said.

Health department officials declined to comment.

A special grand jury may hear cases over a longer period of time than a regular grand jury and may issue a report. It can also issue criminal indictments.

In addition to the special grand jury, Spota said he will create an investigative unit of seasoned narcotics and insurance investigators, along with pharmaceutical industry professionals, to examine the problem of prescription drug abuse in the county.

Spota said his office has seen a surge in fatal car accidents and criminal activity related to prescription drug abuse. He said the Haven Drugs video of the murders, which shows a barely disguised Laffer executing the four people in cold blood, was one of the most chilling things he has ever seen as a prosecutor.

"I've never seen anything like this ever, and this was all driven by a person's cravings for pills," he said. "There can be no greater public interest right now than to make sure government is doing all it can to prevent another Medford tragedy."

State records show that Brady and Laffer went to dozens of doctors from 2007 through June. Thirty of the 36 prescriptions the couple filled from January to June came from three doctors.

Few doctors check database

Many doctors who prescribe painkillers do not use a state database meant to track "doctor shopping," which is when multiple doctors and pharmacies are used in the same month by the same person seeking prescriptions.

The state Health Department tracks prescription pill use and has, since February 2010, made a Controlled Substance Information database available to doctors. However, few physicians check it, Newsday reported, and it has a built-in lag time of about a month. State officials say just 2,061 prescribers have used the system from the start of this year through October.

In 2010, fewer than 1,000 doctors and other authorized prescribers used the system -- around 3 percent of the medical professionals the state has identified as regular prescribers of controlled substances, officials said.

The Health Department monitors the database for possible doctor shopping by patients, but state officials have declined to say how many times they've notified physicians of potential problems.

One area drug-abuse expert said he was glad to see Spota taking this issue seriously. Doctors are rarely held accountable, said Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

"Most of the doctors out there are not doing irresponsible things. But some are," Reynolds said. "Those folks have a hand in the opioid crisis we have here."

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