Peters doctor pleads to health fraud, prescription abuse
Federal prosecutors said the death of a Wilkinsburg man factored into a plea bargain that will send a Peters physician to prison for more than 11 years. "That's an unusually long sentence for a doctor," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Kaufman. Relatives of Ira Gray Jr. appeared in federal court today as Dr. Oliver W. Herndon, 40, pled guilty to prescription drug abuse and health care fraud. Herndon and his lawyer, Roger Cox, declined comment after the hearing. Herndon remains free on a $50,000 bond. Prosecutors and Herndon agreed to the sentence of 11 years and 3 months, which is the maximum recommended by sentencing federal guidelines. U.S. District Judge Arthur Schwab scheduled Herndon's sentencing for Sept. 24. Gray, 23, died in Silver Spring, Md. An autopsy determined he died of oxycodone toxicity, and his death was ruled an accident, according to the Maryland Chief Medical Examiner's Office. Gilbert Stubbs, Gray's uncle, and Patricia Bogle, Gray's mother, believe he died because of the combination of oxycodone and his sleep apnea. "My son died in his sleep," Bogle said after the hearing. She said she agrees with Herndon's sentence "as long as he's going to do some time and is going to lose his license." Bogle said her son injured his leg a couple of years ago when it was crushed between two cars. At the time of the injury, the treating physician only prescribed Percoset for the pain, she said. Gray had told her he had gone to a doctor to get more painkillers, but not that he was taking oxycodone, she said. U.S. Attorney David Hickton held a press conference this afternoon to announce that his office and other federal, state and local agencies are increasing their focus on prescription drug abuse. "Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, technicians and traffickers should all be on notice. If you are illegally prescribing, dispensing or distributing prescription pain medication, we are coming after you," he said.
Brett Pritts, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the Herndon bust reduced the availability of painkillers on the street because the street price of oxycodone in Western Pennsylvania has jumped from $20 to $40 per pill since his arrest.The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and health shows that about 2 1⁄2 times more Americans abuse prescription drugs than the combined number for people using illegal narcotics, he said. Hickton said most of the addicts are in their teens and early 20s and don't realized the risk they're taking. "That young people consider prescription drugs abuse a ‘low risk' is disturbing," he said. "And the fact that the majority of those 12 and older who abused pain relievers in the past have received them from friends and family for free, including from their home medicine cabinets, should be cause for outrage." Hickton said area agencies plan to hold a summit on prescription abuse, tentatively scheduled for June 27 at Washington & Jefferson College. Kaufman said the one-year investigation into Herndon started with pharmacists complaining about the number and strength of the painkillers Herndon was prescribing. About 87 of 128 pharmacies contacted in Western Pennsylvania had stopped filling prescriptions from Herndon, he said. Most of Herndon's patients were in their 20s or 30s, and "many appeared to be strung out or stoned," Kaufman said. Herndon saw 80 to 130 patients daily and, when his office was located in West Mifflin, added two waiting rooms to accommodate the crowds, Kaufman said. The health care fraud charge is based on insurers paying claims for people who didn't need the painkillers, he said. As part of the plea agreement, Herndon agrees that insurers paid out $400,000 to $1 million in fraudulent claims, Kaufman said. Herndon also agrees that he prescribed about 10,800 oxycodone tablets, at an average strength of 30 milligrams, and 3,600 oxymorphone tablets at an average strength of 40 milligrams, Kaufman said.