Crime & Courts

Feds accused a Wichita pharmacist of taking part in a drug conspiracy. Jurors agreed.

The truth about prescription opioids and addiction

Some people might think prescription opioids are safer than alcohol or illegal drugs, but the truth is they carry serious risks and side effects. Talk with your doctor about your concerns and make informed decisions about pain management together.
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Some people might think prescription opioids are safer than alcohol or illegal drugs, but the truth is they carry serious risks and side effects. Talk with your doctor about your concerns and make informed decisions about pain management together.

A pharmacist who prosecutors say ignored signs that narcotic prescriptions written by one Wichita doctor weren’t medically necessary and filled them anyway — often charging patients more than what’s typical for the drugs — has been convicted of health care fraud, illegal distribution and conspiracy.

A federal jury on Tuesday found former Neighborhood Pharmacy owner and Bel Aire resident Ebube Otuonye guilty of four charges following a multi-day trial, according to a news release from U.S. Attorney Stephen McAllister’s Office. Otuonye had previously pleaded not guilty to the allegations.

Federal prosecutors say Otuonye, 46, set up a system to fill prescriptions for addictive opioid painkillers for patients of Steven R. Henson, the former physician who is now serving a life prison sentence for unlawfully distributing prescription drugs outside of the usual course of professional medical practice and without a legitimate medical purpose.

Otuonye’s charges came in June 2018, four months before Henson was convicted in connection with a drug distribution scheme where he met patients outside of usual business hours and often communicated with them via text message, wrote prescriptions in exchange for cash and agreed to prescribe narcotics without an exam. One man, Nicholas McGovern, died in July 2015 after overdosing on a mix of of alprazolam and methadone that Henson had prescribed.

McGovern was one of more than 54,000 Americans who died that year from a drug overdose.

Prosecutors alleged in court filings and at trial that Otuonye agreed to fill the questionable prescriptions at his now-closed pharmacy near 21st and Grove, increased drug prices and devised a system to avoid attracting attention to the increased numbers of controlled substances he was dispensing. As part of his plan to sidestep scrutiny, Otuonye required Henson’s patients to fill three non-narcotic prescriptions for every narcotic script they brought in, prosecutors say.

In response, court records say Henson often ordered what are called $4 scripts — inexpensive antibiotics, allergy medications and other drugs that generally cost a customer $4 to fill at chain pharmacies like Walmart.

Otuonye, court records say, even hung a sign in his pharmacy that read: “You may use another pharmacy if all you want to fill is (a) narcotic prescription.”

When another pharmacist at the business refused to fill Henson’s prescriptions over concerns of the high quantities of pills ordered, Otuonye filled them himself, prosecutors say.

In all Otuonye dispensed:

  • 21,681 oxycodone tablets
  • 48,683 methadone tablets
  • 18,049 hydromorphone tablets
  • 7,890 alprazolam pills

Otuonye, in court filings, denied agreeing to a conspiracy and said he even met with Henson in person to ensure he was a legitimate doctor rather than someone “selling prescriptions out of a trunk.”

Warning signs of improper prescribing that prosecutors say Otuonye ignored include high numbers of prescriptions from Henson for addictive drugs, customers who paid with cash rather than with insurance, several patients trying to fill Henson’s prescriptions at the same time and back-to-back identical prescriptions written from Henson to members of the same family. He also submitted some claims for Henson’s prescriptions to Medicare and Medicaid, McAllister’s news release said.

Between 1999 and 2017 nearly 400,000 people died from prescription and illicit opioid overdoses and about 68% of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency to address the national opioid crisis.

Otuonye is scheduled for sentencing on Oct. 23. He faces up to 20 years in federal prison and a maximum fine of $1 million on each of two counts: conspiracy to unlawfully distribute prescription drugs and unlawfully distributing prescription drugs. He faces up to 10 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 on each of two counts of health care fraud.

The Kansas Pharmacy Board shows Otuonye’s pharmacist license is expired, which means he can’t practice in the state. His license was issued in 1998.

The Kansas Board of Healing Arts suspended Henson’s medical license in February 2016 and revoked it in May of this year after he received the life prison sentence.

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Amy Renee Leiker has been reporting for The Wichita Eagle since 2010. She covers crime, courts and breaking news and updates the newspaper’s online databases. You can reach her at 316-268-6644. She’s an avid reader and mom of three in her non-work time.