On the street, Pravin V. Mehta is known by many as "Dr. Feel Good," according to authorities.
That's because, officials say, the 72-year-old doctor has been dispensing prescriptions for powerful narcotics from his Niagara Falls medical office as if they were candy.
In fact, the internationally trained internist and endocrinologist, they say, distributed more prescriptions for narcotic painkillers in a recent 2 1/2 -year period than all the other 157 doctors in Niagara Falls combined, and more than just about any other doctor throughout the state.
That's a lot of drugs -- about 3 million doses of painkillers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl. Much of it was paid for with Medicaid funds, meaning that taxpayers paid a big chunk of the multimillion-dollar drug bill, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
While the big numbers are part of what attracted the attention of federal agents, that's not the reason the veteran doctor was arrested Thursday.
That happened, officials said, because Mehta prescribed drugs to anyone who wanted them -- sometimes with no medical reason and without adequately examining the patients for whom the pills were being prescribed. Sometimes, authorities allege, Mehta would be out of the country, after having left hundreds of pre-signed prescriptions back in his office for his nonmedical staff to hand out if they thought patients needed them.
Mehta's activities, according to police, basically turned him into a street-level drug dealer, providing powerful and addictive prescription opiates that ended up in the hands of drug addicts and dealers in Erie and Niagara counties.
His arrest is being viewed in much the same way as when a authorities bust a major cocaine or heroin dealer. Putting Mehta out of business, they say, will put a major dent in the supply of illegal prescription opiates available in the area.
"Today I can say we really did get the head of the snake, and, boy, did we get the supplier," said Niagara Falls Police Superintendent John R. Chella.
Mehta is charged with illegal distribution of controlled substances, a felony for which a conviction could carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years. But under advisory sentencing guidelines, prison terms are usually much shorter.
Mehta pleaded not guilty Thursday before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder Jr. and was released on a nonsignature bond.
Mehta's attorney, Joel L. Daniels, said, "He's a hardworking, well-qualified, experienced doctor who has served people from all walks of life for decades."
Thirteen other people were charged with illegally obtaining or attempting to obtain prescription drugs, including Mehta's office manager, Dawn Figurelli, 48, of Niagara Falls; a current Mehta employee, Shannon Figurelli, 25, of Niagara Falls; and two former Mehta employees, Chantel Stypick, 32, of Niagara Falls and Teresa Gansworth, 25, of Sanborn.
The same felony charge was filed against nine people who allegedly received drugs from Mehta's office: James Respress, 53; Bari McHugh, 37; Teri Long, 27; Amy Gore, 37; Ashley Fose, 27; Wilbert Henderson, 52; Chiaka Gabby, 20; and Robert Bradley, 30, all of Niagara Falls; and Teresa Gansworth, 25, of Sanborn.
Respress, the Figurellis, Bradley, Stypick, Fose, Gabby, McHugh and Henderson also were charged with health care fraud because they allegedly used Medicaid benefit cards to pay for the fraudulently obtained and forged prescriptions.
The Buffalo DEA office, under Special Agent Dale M. Kasprzyk, ran the investigation with Niagara Falls police, the state Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, the Niagara County Sheriff's Drug Task Force, the Criminal Division of the Internal Revenue Service and the state Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.
As Mehta was arrested Thursday morning, the DEA issued an emergency order suspending his right to prescribe drugs until further notice. Kasprzyk said the action was taken because the doctor's office caused "danger to public health and safety."
Thursday morning, outside Mehta's Main Street office, a stream of patients came by, learning about his arrest after police turned them away.
One woman said she was being treated for diabetes; most others said they were coming for their medication. They would not specify what kind.
"Dr. Mehta was arrested? How will I get my medication?" one man asked.
Several people watching the raid said that it's well-known on the streets of Niagara Falls that Mehta would prescribe whatever drugs people wanted.
"People need help, and he gives them help," said Vintaun Scott, 25, of Niagara Falls, who said that he is not a patient of Mehta's but that he knows people who are. "I've heard he was a good doc. I think he was just helping patients."
But another man, referring the drug users and dealers who rely on Mehta for prescription opiates that eventually get sold on the streets, said, "This is a very sad day for a whole lot of people."
Mehta's arrest is the latest in the DEA's assault on illegal distribution of prescription opiates, which U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. says are now the drug of choice for many addicts. Illegal use of the drugs has led to a string of fatal overdoses in the Buffalo Niagara region.
Prior to Thursday, the most high-profile arrest involved a Cheektowaga man, Michael McCall, who allegedly ran a 33-member prescription drug gang. McCall coached some members of his gang on ways to persuade doctors to prescribe them opiates, and he had other members selling the drugs on the street, authorities said.
Mehta, however, is the first doctor arrested in the Buffalo Niagara Region on drug charges in recent years. He is at least the third doctor arrested in New York State in the last three months. The others were downstate, in New York City and on Long Island.
"We don't care if you have M.D. after your name, or if you wear a white coat, if [doctors] are violating the law, we're going after them," said James R. Burns Jr., assistant special agent in charge of the DEA's upstate office.
Hochul, the U.S. attorney, said investigators believe that Mehta's actions caused some major health problems in Niagara County and also cost taxpayers millions of dollars in Medicaid funds.
Medicaid-funded prescriptions for controlled substances that Mehta wrote from January 2008 to December 2010 cost taxpayers $2.8 million, according to the DEA, and Medicaid-funded prescriptions for controlled substance prescriptions written by the 157 other doctors in Niagara County cost taxpayers a total of $1.9 million.
Hochul said the charges against Mehta are "not an indictment of the medical profession." He said investigators believe that the vast majority of doctors in Western New York do follow the law when they prescribe drugs.
Mehta has been a doctor for 47 years, and his wife, Malini P. Mehta, 73, is also a doctor, practicing at Buffalo Psychiatric Center.
The couple owns two homes in Amherst, the Getzville house where they live, which is assessed at $330,000, and a second home, assessed at $158,400, where they previously lived, according to documents on file with the Erie County Clerk's Office.
In addition, records show, the Mehta family owns more than two dozen smaller properties and vacant lots in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, along with vacant land on Grand Island.
The couple has two grown children, and some of the homes are in their names as well as Malini Mehta's.
Nonetheless, the IRS in December 2010 filed a $7,049 lien against Mehta for unpaid taxes. That's on top of a $1,068 lien filed in 2007 by the state Department of Labor and the Department of Taxation and Finance.
Some of the Niagara Falls properties are in disrepair. One building owned by Malini Mehta, at 1344 Ashland Ave.,is scheduled to be demolished by the city later this year. A demolition notice sent by the city in March describes the building as "endangering the health, safety and welfare of the public" and "beyond the point of rehabilitation."
Mehta is believed to be from Uganda. He graduated from the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in England in 1965 and has been licensed to practice medicine in New York State since 1976. He completed his residency in internal medicine at Erie County Medical Center in 1976 and became board-ertified in 1977. He then became board-ertified in endocrinology and metabolism in 1989, according to state Health Department records.
He is affiliated with Mount St. Mary's Hospital & Health Center in Lewiston. There are no malpractice actions, sanctions or disciplinary actions against him, according to Health Department records.
In 1993, The Buffalo News reported that Pravin Mehta was part of a team of American doctors who went to India to work in a temporary medical camp for 15 days. The team provided free medical treatment to about 20,000 patients. He has made numerous trips to India since then, according to his patients.
News Niagara Bureau Reporter Denise Jewell Gee contributed to this report.