Even at the age of 77, Pravin V. Mehta is one of the faces of the opiate epidemic.
The former Niagara Falls doctor signed tens of thousands of prescriptions over a five-year period and, at one time, wrote more prescriptions than all but one other doctor in New York State.
Now, the man known as “Dr. Feel Good” is going to prison for two years.
“We know it’s a problem, and you fed that problem,” U.S. District Senior Judge William M. Skretny said of Mehta and his role in the continuing crisis over opiate addictions. “The fact of the matter is, there are victims because of what you did.”
Mehta, who has a reported net worth of $13 million, also was fined $500,000. He lost his license to practice medicine several years ago.
With his wife and family watching from the courtroom gallery, the former internist broke down emotionally several times as he tried to explain what he did. “I’m disgraced,” the Amherst resident told Skretny. “I had intentions that were honorable, but my conduct was not.”
For Mehta, it’s the end of a five-year-long prosecution that painted him as one of the root causes of the local opiate epidemic.
To hear police talk, it was the lines outside Mehta’s Niagara Falls office that first raised a red flag for investigators. The people waiting to get in were patients eager for prescription pain medication, they say, many of them users and dealers looking for an easy way to score some pills.
Mehta, one of the first doctors charged in the recent rash of prescription pill cases, admitted last year to handing out illegal pain medication from late 2007 to early 2011 when he was arrested. He also admitted handing out prescriptions without a proper medical reason and sometimes without doing even a basic exam.
“I know you’re known as Dr. Feel Good,” Skretny said at one point Monday. “Maybe that’s fair. And maybe it’s not.”
Skretny offered an unusually long statement on Mehta’s conduct and his role in the opiate epidemic. He referred to the growing number of overdoses here and suggested more than once that Mehta was partly responsible for creating the current crisis.
“It’s troubling,” he told Mehta. “I don’t know if you’ve thought about the victimization of those people you tried to make feel good.”
As part of his plea deal, Mehta admitted signing blank prescription forms and directing a staff member, in his absence, to fill out the rest of the forms.
Prosecutors say that some of those blank, signed prescription forms were stolen by staff members and sold for cash on the streets. Four of those employees and nine others have been convicted in connection with the case.
“He employed drug addicts to operate a medical practice,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney John E. Rogowski.
After 35 years as a prosecutor, Rogowski said, very few things shock him, yet the memory of Mehta’s employees and patients, many of them addicts strung out on drugs, will stay with him.
Mehta, who was charged in a 28-count federal indictment in 2011, ended up pleading guilty to a single count of conspiracy to distribute oxycodone and other controlled substances.
“He’s almost 78, and all the good he’s done is gone,” defense attorney Joel L. Daniels told Skretny. “He’s a beaten man, Judge.”
Skretny, who could have sentenced Mehta to nearly six years in prison, rejected Daniels’ request for a nonjail sentence and made it clear why he thought prison time was necessary.
“You’re not the kind of drug dealer we normally get in federal court,” he said. “Are you a drug dealer? Yeah, you admitted being one.”
In trying to explain why his client did what he did, Daniels said Mehta was the kind of doctor who didn’t turn people, rich or poor, away. He also said Mehta’s patient list ballooned to a high of more than 8,000, more than triple the average of 2,500 for most internists.
“I was overwhelmed,” Mehta said. “I tried to help and care for too many patients.”
U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr. said Mehta’s abusive use of prescription drugs turned his patients into “virtual zombies” and contributed to the opiate crisis in the community.
“Let today’s sentence be a message that we will continue to prosecute drug dealers of every type, whether they wear overcoats or white coats, and peddle their commodities on street corners or in doctor’s offices,” Hochul said in a statement Monday.
Mehta, an internationally trained internist and endocrinologist, is one of several local doctors who have been charged over the last five years with doling out illegal drugs.
Shortly after his arrest, Dr. Matthew A. Bennett, of North Tonawanda, was charged, as well. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.
Two other doctors – Daniel C. Gillick, of Youngstown, and Albert R. Cowie, of Amherst – also have been charged in similar cases.
Cowie, who was arrested in April, is accused of writing illegal prescriptions for oxycodone, Percocet and hydrocodone and, with the help of others, keeping some of the pills for himself.
Gillick, who was arrested in 2012, was an emergency room doctor who later pleaded guilty to health care fraud and illegally obtaining a controlled substance. He was sentenced to six months of home confinement and two years’ probation. Gillick’s case also gained attention because of his relationship with Christine D. Guilfoyle, who allegedly received drugs from him. She and Aaron Morgan, a boyfriend and fellow addict, were found dead of an overdose two years ago.
Mehta’s case was investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Falls police, the Niagara County Sheriff’s Drug Task Force, the state Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, the state Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and the Criminal Investigation Division of the IRS.