Erie County is in the grip of a deadly opioid epidemic. Overdoses are claiming the lives of about 10 people each week. If the trend continues, nearly 600 people will have died in 2016, more than double the toll in 2015.
The battle against addiction is being waged on many fronts, with the effort expanding as governments realize the depths of the problem.
Along with that, law enforcement is working to prevent addiction. The federal Drug Enforcement Agency says that four out of five heroin users get their start with prescription painkillers, often obtaining the medication from family members or acquaintances.
That chilling understanding helped lead the state to enact the I-STOP law to track prescriptions for opioid painkillers to spot abuses.
Still, the epidemic is gathering speed.
Last week, one of the state’s busiest pain-management doctors, Eugene J. Gosy, was the target of federal prosecutors.
A 114-count indictment alleges that he provided painkillers to patients without a proper medical reason. Prosecutors accuse the Amherst neurologist of operating a criminal conspiracy that issued more than 300,000 illegal prescriptions in four years.
“He was the No. 1 prescriber in New York,” said John P. Flickinger, resident agent in charge of the Buffalo DEA office.
The doctor pleaded not guilty and was released on bail. He surrendered his license to prescribe controlled substances, while keeping his license to practice medicine.
An April 27 article by News staff reporter Phil Fairbanks described allegations by federal prosecutors that Gosy, 55, a Clarence resident, set up a prescription renewal process that was “batch-signing” 300 illegal renewals each day.
The indictment also charges Gosy with illegally billing the state workers’ compensation system for patient visits at his office when, one prosecutor said, the doctor was out of the country.
The billing investigation was led by the FBI’s Health Care Fraud Task Force and the state Office of Workers’ Compensation and inspector general and included the seizure of Gosy’s $126,000 Ferrari and a $103,000 Ford GT coupe.
Prosecutors, who compared Gosy to a street corner drug dealer, now face the burden of proving their allegations.
Gosy’s lawyer, Joel L. Daniels, said the government’s case escalates technical issues into criminal activity. The evidence, he said, will show that all prescriptions written for Gosy’s patients were for “legitimate medical purposes.”
Gosy is the sixth Western New York doctor to face prosecution over illegal prescriptions.
Most recently, former Niagara Falls doctor Pravin V. Mehta pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute oxycodone and other controlled substances and was sentenced to two years in prison. Prosecutors said he signed tens of thousands of prescriptions over a five-year period.
Communities around the nation are dealing with an epidemic that is stealing lives. Doctors are on notice that contributing to that toll will not be tolerated.