BUFFALO — Ethel Johnson couldn't get her prescription for pain medication filled fast enough. The 60-year-old Buffalo woman was hurting — but investigators say that wasn't the reason for the rush.
According to secretly recorded telephone conversations, the sooner Johnson could pick up her pills, the more quickly she could sell them to her dealer. Her pain pills were destined for the street.
Johnson is among 33 people charged so far in a large-scale investigation that has opened a window into an emerging class of suppliers in the illicit drug trade: medical patients, including many who rely on the publicly funded Medicaid program to pay for their appointments and prescriptions. She has pleaded not guilty.
For the first time, the Buffalo investigators devoted the kinds of resources normally aimed at street drugs like heroin or crack — wiretaps, buys, surveillance and cross-agency cooperation to trace the drugs from pharmacy to street. They were taken aback by the burgeoning market for the kinds of pills found in medicine cabinets in typical American homes.
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Often at no charge, the patients see a doctor, or several doctors, and come away with prescriptions for narcotic OxyContin and other pills they then sell to a dealer for as much as $1,000. If they are on Medicaid, the program is billed about $1,060 for a typical 60-pill, 80-mg prescription, along with the $23-to-$39 cost of the doctor's visit.
A report last year by the Government Accountability Office estimated that 65,000 Medicaid beneficiaries in New York and four other states had visited six or more doctors in fiscal 2006 and 2007 to acquire duplicate prescriptions for controlled substances.
The cost to Medicaid was $63 million for the drugs alone, excluding doctors' exams.
The criminal cases brought in July by U.S. Attorney William Hochul's office in Buffalo illustrate how patients are coached about which doctors to see and what to say when they get there.
"Tell him, you know, you know you've been in a lot of pain, your throat is complaining. And then, you know, even throw a little of that stress on about your baby," alleged Buffalo kingpin Michael McCall instructs a 40-year-old patient-supplier in a conversation recorded by investigators.
"You need to tell doctor you need to go up to 90 (pills) 'cause... you've been taking three a day and you ran out earlier," he says.
After buying the pills from patients, dealers resell them for an average of $1 a milligram, investigators say. With a single 80-mg OxyContin selling for $80, the 90-count bottle of pills McCall allegedly paid $1,000 or less for was worth $7,200 on the street.