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Suffolk DA: Big rise in painkiller abuse

Prescription painkillers in this undated file photo.

Prescription painkillers in this undated file photo. Photo Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

A special grand jury investigating painkiller abuse in the wake of last year's Medford pharmacy shootings has found a dramatic increase in arrests and overdose deaths related to painkillers in Suffolk County.

The grand jury's report, released Thursday, lays much of the blame on the increase on drug manufacturers' lobbying efforts and overprescribing of the painkillers by doctors.

"The genesis of the current epidemic lies squarely at the feet of the medical establishment -- the practitioners, the prescribers, the pharmaceutical companies," Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota said at a news conference in Hauppauge.

Without providing names or details, he said the grand jury that wrote the report had indicted 26 people for painkiller-related crimes. He also said he expects to announce shortly the indictment of a health care provider.

The grand jury's report makes a number of recommendations to combat the epidemic, including making doctor shopping a felony and stiffening penalties for fraudulent prescribing. Doctor shopping is when someone seeking pills visits multiple providers to receive prescriptions in a short period of time. The report also recommends that anyone filling a prescription for a controlled substance be required to present a photo ID.

Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, said the report confirmed what public health care practitioners have seen in terms of painkiller abuse.

"Long Island is in the midst of a historic crisis," Reynolds said, adding, "we've never seen anything like this."

The grand jury investigation follows a Newsday report 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 the morning of June 19, 2011, and murdered four people while stealing painkillers. Laffer was sentenced to five life terms and Brady to 25 years.

The grand jury report says that driving-while-under-the-influence arrests in which the driver was high on painkillers increased 413 percent over the past 10 years in Suffolk. Last year alone, 48 percent of all DWI arrests involved prescription painkillers. Also, between 2004 and 2011, there was a 69 percent increase in Suffolk, in which painkillers were a contributing cause in overdose deaths.

In addition, Suffolk has almost twice the state average in cash prescriptions -- a red flag for abuse, officials say -- for oxycodone, according to the report. Three areas with particularly high rates of prescriptions for oxycodone bought with cash are Shirley, Patchogue and Rocky Point, the report says.

Dr. Marc J. Yland, president of the Suffolk County Medical Society, who has a specialty in pain management, said he agreed with much of what Spota said. He said doctors need access to a patient's full prescription history in order to make responsible prescribing decisions.

"Most physicians would like to see the prosecution of fraudulent prescribers," he said.

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