The Northeast's largest "pill mill," which sold as much as $500 million of oxycodone prescribed by a sham Bronx clinic, was shut down Wednesday with the indictment of 24 people, including doctors, office staffers and "crews," law enforcement officials said.
"This is poison by prescription, and the volume and money allegedly involved would make hardened illegal drug traffickers envious," said Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement.
Dr. Kevin Lowe, 54, owned and ran the Bronx-based Astramed clinic, which took no health insurance. Instead, "pretend" patients paid $300 for a doctor's visit that usually lasted just a minute or two, and they "consistently" left with prescriptions for large amounts of oxycodone, prosecutors said in court papers.
Doctors were not paid unless they wrote prescriptions for the highly addictive painkiller, prosecutors said.
"The doctors were corrupt, board-certified, state-licensed doctors who, in exchange for cash, were willing to write medically unnecessary prescriptions," Bharara said.
The money from the oxycodone prescriptions -- filled by "cooperative pharmacies" based mainly in the Bronx and in Beacon -- piled up swiftly. Lowe reaped nearly $12 million from fees patients paid to see the doctors who worked for him. Money orders made out to the clinic were deposited in bulk.
Lowe, a resident of Kingston, "caused" $91,850 -- spread among 402 money orders that were payment for medically unnecessary prescriptions -- to be deposited in a Farmingdale bank account he controlled on about June 20, 2013, the indictment said.
Lowe's attorney could not be reached for comment.
On New York City streets, a typical Astramed prescription for 180 30-milligram pills could sell for $6,000. And in nearby states, the same bottle might fetch $18,000.
The clinic doctors wrote more than 31,000 phony prescriptions for 5.5 million tablets, prosecutors said.
Another alleged ring leader, Dr. Robert Terdiman, sold the painkiller drug "on a scale we have not seen before -- flooding the black market with oxy-codone carrying a street value of over $90 million," special narcotics prosecutor Bridget Brennan said.
Oxycodone, prescribed for severe or chronic pain, is abused by 13 million Americans a year; its misuse causes 500,000 emergency hospital visits a year, authorities said.
The clinic's fees were paid by "crew chiefs," who recruited individuals to pose as patients -- and they controlled who saw the doctors, often charging new patients more than a thousand dollars, according to papers.
Fearing detection, the doctors sought to create a fake paper trail. Fake MRIs and $40 urine samples were sold to the pretend patients -- typically inside the clinic, or just outside, prosecutors said. One defendant chastised his co-worker for using a cellphone to discuss a Long Island pharmacy that could fill the prescriptions, court papers said.
All the defendants pleaded not guilty, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney said by email.
Each defendant is charged with one count of conspiracy to distribute and possess with intent to distribute oxycodone. The maximum sentence is 20 years if convicted.