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Doctor, Pharmacist Arrested Over Pills

December 03, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Authorities have arrested an Oxnard doctor and a Ventura pharmacist, accusing them of prescribing and selling tens of thousands of doses of highly addictive painkillers in what was described as the largest illegal prescription drug operation on the West Coast.

Dr. Michael Huff, 55, and pharmacist Richard Ozar, 58, were arrested after a federal grand jury issued a 90-count indictment against them. They are accused of selling 160,000 tablets of the powerful painkillers -- including OxyContin, Vicodin and Dilaudid -- to nine patients.

Huff declined to respond to the charges, and Ozar was unavailable for comment.

Huff's license was suspended in July by the state medical board for excessively prescribing painkillers, and Ozar's license is under review. They were released on bail Tuesday, a day after they were arrested by the Ventura County Sheriff's Department.

The arrests followed a 15-month investigation by state, federal and local law enforcement agencies. A federal grand jury issued a 90-count indictment Nov. 20 against the pair, charging them with conspiracy and unlawful distribution of controlled substances.

The pills made their way to the streets of Ventura County, falling into the hands of gang members and drug dealers, and may have caused the deaths of as many as 10 people who overdosed, authorities said. Some pills also were shipped to a patient in Boston whom Huff never saw, authorities said.

"Dr. Huff ignored a number of complaints and concerns from patients and their family members and from other health-care providers," Sheriff Bob Brooks said during a news conference Tuesday in Thousand Oaks.

"He also paid no notice to obvious signs of abuse from his patients, such as track marks on their arms or showing up for appointments under the influence. Mr. Ozar likewise chose to overlook customers paying for extravagant prescriptions with large sums of cash, cashier's checks or credit cards."

The arrests of Huff and Ozar come as authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about the addictive powers of a new generation of painkillers.

And they are just the tip of the iceberg, said Walter Allen III, assistant chief of the state Department of Justice. He said they foreshadow more arrests of doctors willing to risk their professions and their patients' health for the money they can make writing medically unnecessary prescriptions.

"They're profiting off the misery of others with no regard for the people they are hurting whatsoever," said Allen, whose agency tracked the prescriptions. "We're hoping this will be a warning to other medical professionals who might be tempted to sell drugs for personal gain."

Huff is accused by the state medical board of hooking dozens of patients on drugs by overprescribing pain medication to them. The gist of the federal case against Huff and Ozar involves the "diversion" of the illegally prescribed drugs from patients to dealers and gang members.

Huff, a self-described pain specialist, prescribed the drugs in amounts far exceeding manufacturer recommendations and without thorough medical exams or tests, according to the indictment. Furthermore, the indictment said, he renewed the prescriptions well before patients' supplies ran out and ignored warnings that his patients were selling the drugs.

He sent the patients to Victoria Village Pharmacy, owned by Ozar, who dispensed the drugs knowing there was no medical purpose for the prescriptions, the grand jury said.

Ozar also allegedly mailed large quantities of drugs to out-of-state patients.

Huff and Ozar were so prolific that their prescriptions brought down the street price of the pills, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.

Individual tablets of OxyContin can sell for as much as $80, but the price dropped as low as $10 a pill, authorities said.

Narcotics officers became aware of the problem when they noticed a spike in arrests of gang members, drug dealers and "other criminal elements" who were carrying prescription drugs, particularly in Thousand Oaks, Brooks said. Huff and Ozar also may be responsible for as many as 10 overdose deaths in the county that occurred in 2002 and 2003, said Sheriff's Sgt. Bret Uhlich, the lead investigator on the case.

Investigators said Huff and Ozar, who have worked in their professions for more than 20 years, profited by billing insurance companies for unwarranted drugs or services. Officials estimated they made millions of dollars.

The pair appeared in federal court in Los Angeles after their arrests. Huff was released from jail Tuesday on $50,000 bail and Ozar on $75,000.

If convicted, they face a maximum of 20 years in prison on each of the 89 counts of felony distribution and 15 years on the one count of conspiracy, Mrozek said.

The nine patients named in the grand jury indictment will not be prosecuted because they agreed to allow their medical records to be used in the investigation, Uhlich said.

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