Justice department takes first-of-its-kind-legal action to reduce opioid over-prescription
Temporary restraining orders — a first-of-its-kind against doctors allegedly prescribing opioids illegally under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) — were served this week that forbid Michael P. Tricaso, D.O., of Akron, and Gregory J. Gerber, M.D., of Sandusky, from writing prescriptions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions was joined by U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio Justin Herdman and other Justice Department officials in Cleveland today to make the announcement.
On March 19, 2018, President Trump announced the Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse and Reduce Drug Supply and Demand. The initiative seeks to “reduce the over-prescription of opioids which has the potential to lead Americans down a path to addiction or facilitate diversion to illicit use.”
Pursuant to the President’s Initiative and as part of the goal to reduce opioid over-prescription, the Justice Department’s Prescription Interdiction & Litigation (PIL) Task Force aggressively deploys and coordinates all available criminal and civil law enforcement tools to reverse the tide of opioid overdoses in the United States.
As a result of the PIL Task Force’s efforts, Attorney General Sessions’ announcement of the temporary restraining orders for Triasco and Geber mark the first ever civil injunctions under the CSA against doctors who allegedly prescribed opioids illegally.
Making the announcement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said, “Today’s announcements are a warning to every trafficker, every crooked doctor or pharmacist, and every drug company, every chairman and foreign national and company that puts greed before the lives and health of the American people: this Justice Department will use civil and criminal penalties alike and we will find you, put you in jail, or make you pay.”
“These doctors were simply drug dealers in white lab coats,” said U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman. “They illegally prescribed painkillers and other drugs for no legitimate medical purpose. Putting so-called physicians like these out of business is one of several steps we are taking to turn the tide on the opioid and drug crisis that has caused so much death and heartbreak in our community.”
“The physicians in this investigation were nothing short of automatic prescription machines to anyone who solicited,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Timothy Plancon.
“Their reckless actions and corruption has had a tremendous affect in opioid addiction that is plaguing America. Agents are working in communities affected by the opioid epidemic and the DEA’s upmost priority, is arresting and dismantling the largest opioid traffickers, such as Tricaso and Gerber. We will not stop until illegal trafficking of prescription pills and other harmful drugs are out of Northern Ohio and off the streets of America.”
“Excessive prescribing and reckless distribution of opioids and other drugs have harmed our communities and fueled the public health crisis we are currently dealing with,” said Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.
“At the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, we are committed to protecting Ohio families and collaborating with our law enforcement partners to ensure that those who ignore the law, put people at risk, and contribute to this crisis are held accountable for their actions.”
According to documents filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Tricaso operates the Better Living Clinic, currently located at 1236 Weathervane Lane, Suite 300, in Akron. He promotes the Better Living Clinic at gyms across Northeast Ohio and also serves as the “gym doctor” at a gym in Painesville.
In May 2016, Tricaso met a confidential source (CS1), who was working for the DEA, at a gym. Tricaso sold CS1 steroids and other controlled substances numerous times this year.
CS1 met Tricaso at a hotel parking lot on June 26, 2018, where CS1 asked Tricaso for a prescription of the opioid Vicodin. Tricaso declined because he does not “like writing scripts,” but offered to provide CS1 with Percocet without a prescription.
According to court documents, Triasco told CS1, “It’s easier for me to get them for you, than to write a script, ‘cause it gets traced, you know? So, how many would you want? I mean, I can get them for like five bucks apiece…I can probably get like 50 to 100 of them…”
Tricaso later texted to CS1 that he could sell him 50 Percocet pills for $500 and write a prescription for 20 Percocet, which Tricaso described as an “under the radar amount and won’t be a red flag.”
On July 2, Tricaso met CS1 in the hotel parking lot, where Tricaso sold 50 Percocet for $500 and wrote CS1 a prescription for 20 Percocet.
On July 18, Tricaso and CS1 met again in the hotel parking lot, where Tricaso sold CS1 100 Percocet for $1,000.
Tricaso is alleged to have violated the CSA.
Gerber operated Gregory J. Gerber, M.D. LLC from 2819 Hayes Avenue, Suite 4 in Sandusky. Gerber received $175,000 between 2013 and 2016 from Insys Therapeutics, Inc. to promote Subsys, a liquid formulation of fentanyl applied under the tongue a spray used to treat cancer-related pain. These payments violate the False Claims Act prohibition against kickbacks, according to the complaint.
Gerber in October 2017 began seeing an undercover agent. The undercover agent did not complain of pain during each of their six visits with Gerber and received a minimal medical examination, but each time Gerber prescribed controlled substances for the undercover agent, including Oxycodone, Dronabinol and alprazolam.
Gerber is alleged to have violated the CSA and the False Claims Act.
Both investigations are ongoing.
“These doctors pledged an oath dedicating their lives to treating patients but instead they traded that commitment for the pursuit of ill-gotten profits through the fraudulent prescribing of opioids,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen D. Anthony.
“This case should serve as a warning to other physicians of the perils of engaging in such activities, law enforcement will continue collaborative efforts to hold individuals accountable.”
“We rely on doctors to be part of the solution to the opioid epidemic - not part of the problem,” said Special Agent in Charge Lamont Pugh of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.
“We will continue our aggressive efforts to protect patients and taxpayers from physicians who abuse their position in order to enrich themselves.”
“The State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy is committed to protecting Ohio patients from criminal prescribing practices,” said Executive Director Steven Schierholt.
“I applaud the coordinated efforts at the local, state, and federal level. By enforcing state and federal regulations, these criminal prescribers can be stopped.”
These cases were investigated by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Health and Human Services – Office of Inspector General, the Ohio Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, the State of Ohio Board of Pharmacy, the Cuyahoga Falls Police Department, the State Medical Board of Ohio, and other members of the PIL Task Force.
These cases are being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Patricia Fitzgerald, Margaret Sweeney, Matthew Cronin, Angelita Cruz Bridges, Gene Crawford, and Chelsea Rice, with assistance from Deputy Director Jill Furman and Trial Attorneys James Harlow and David Frank of the Department of Justice’s Consumer Protection Branch. ■