Hempfield doctor charged with prescribing drugs that killed woman
A Hempfield doctor's arrest Wednesday in the 2015 overdose death of a Unity woman should sound a warning bell to physicians across the state, Attorney General Josh Shapiro said.
Agents from the Attorney General's Office filed charges against Edgar Derek Peske, 78, for drug delivery resulting in the death of 30-year-old Nicole Henderson. He also was charged with unlawfully prescribing a controlled substance and medical assistance fraud for allegedly prescribing more than 100,000 painkillers to nine patients, including Henderson, over 22 months in 2013 and 2015.
Peske is believed to be the first physician in Westmoreland County charged under the law that allows authorities to hold third parties responsible in overdose deaths.
Shapiro told the Tribune-Review Wednesday that ending the opioid/heroin epidemic that many experts believe began with prescriptions written in doctors' offices, is his top priority. And he is targeting medical professionals as well as top-level drug dealers.
“Physicians can be part of the solution by altering their prescribing practices or by going to jail,” Shapiro said, noting that drug delivery resulting in death carries a penalty of up to 40 years in prison.
Court documents filed in Westmoreland County say the last time Nicole Henderson saw Peske, he prescribed her 100 methadone tablets.
On June 8, 2015, a pharmacy turned her away because Peske wrote on the prescription that the medication was for drug withdrawal. Such prescriptions must come from a methadone clinic, police said.
Peske allegedly re-issued the prescription, this time noting the methadone was for pain management.
Investigators from the state Attorney General's Office believe that methadone led to Henderson's fatal drug overdose the following day.
“While the death of Nicole Henderson is well-documented and undeniably the result of Dr. Peske's maliciously reckless prescribing, it is undoubted that the lives of many others were placed at similar risk,” wrote Dr. Stephen Thomas, a pain management specialist, in a report provided to state investigators and included in a criminal complaint.
Henderson was the daughter of Terri and Donald Howard of Fairfield Township. Her mother declined comment on Peske's arrest.
Thomas reviewed voluminous files taken from Peske's office and called his actions “medically inappropriate.” Investigators said Peske wrote prescriptions without monitoring patients, assessing their pain levels or addressing illicit drugs when they showed up on patient screenings.
“The observed controlled substance prescribing of (Peske) ... represented a clear and present danger to his patients and the community, and was not in accordance with the accepted treatment principles of any responsible segment of the medical community,” Thomas wrote in his report.
Shapiro, who took office earlier this year, said his office is working with the Pennsylvania Medical Society to target physicians who illegally divert prescription drugs.
“Just three weeks ago, we arrested 12 doctors and nurses in the Lehigh Valley for diversion,” Shapiro said.
A state database that documents prescribing practices and flags outliers has become a critical tool in the battle to stem the flow of prescription opioids to the streets, Shapiro said.
Peske was arraigned Wednesday morning and waived his right to a preliminary hearing. He is free on recognizance bond.
His attorneys did not return messages seeking comment.
Court documents filed with his arrest Wednesday said some of Peske's patients were members of the same household, and he often wrote a patient two prescriptions for the same medication if their insurance wouldn't pay for the number of pills. Peske said he wasn't surprised that some patients were selling their prescriptions, Agent Robert Cameron wrote in the complaint.
Peske's medical license went inactive May 2, 2016, and expired in December. Documents on file with the Pennsylvania Medical Board show his prescribing practices caught the attention of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as early as 2013. The agency issued him a letter of admonishment that year, criticizing his prescribing practices between 2006 and 2013.
Peske voluntarily surrendered his license to prescribe controlled substances in July 2015.
He is accused of defrauding the state medical assistance program of $23,614 in 175 pharmacy claims for five patients that were not medically necessary.
Peske lost his medical license in Vermont for six months in 1982 because female patients complained he fondled them.