Pubdate: Fri, 21 Jun 2002
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Larry King, Inquirer Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Oxycontin / Oxycodone)


A remorseless Richard Paolino, the Bucks County doctor who trafficked
in OxyContin to ease the pain of bankruptcy, was sent to prison
yesterday for at least 30 years.

For Paolino, 59, it was essentially a life term, barring a successful
appeal or an extended run of good health.

"He will die in prison," prosecutor Gary Gambardella predicted after
Judge David W. Heckler sentenced Paolino in Bucks County Court.

Smiling broadly, Gambardella called it "an absolutely great sentence,"
adding that Paolino had "earned every day of it."

Paolino, once considered the area's top supplier of illicitly
prescribed OxyContin, recklessly approved the use of it and other
drugs by hundreds of patients who did not need them, prosecutors said
- - even after he lost his medical license in November 2000.

A jury convicted Paolino in April of illegal delivery of controlled
substances, practicing without a license, conspiracy, and more than
100 counts of insurance fraud.

As deputies led him off in handcuffs, Paolino said he was "not really"
surprised by the severity of Heckler's punishment. Remaining
unrepentant, he has acknowledged only "noncriminal mistakes in judgment."

His explanations clearly nettled Heckler, who called them "outrageous"
and skewered Paolino at length yesterday.

The judge read from a typewritten statement in which the 25-year
family practitioner and widowed father of two grown sons said he had
opened his Bensalem office to "pain-management" patients to try to
make money to pay off creditors in bankruptcy court.

By placing greed above his patients, Heckler said, Paolino had
"breached a sacred trust," and had unfairly blackened the medical
profession. The sentence, he said, would warn any other wayward
physicians "that the courts will treat them not as respected members
of the community, but as the drug dealers they have become."

Two Philadelphia doctors who illegally helped Paolino stay open after
he lost his medical license received lighter treatment.

Wesley Collier, 52, received at least 27 months in state prison, while
David Harmon, 53, received 12 years of probation.

Collier had been convicted of drug delivery and conspiracy charges for
signing blank prescriptions for Paolino. Harmon had pleaded guilty to
similar charges and cooperated with prosecutors.

Both had worked briefly for Paolino in early 2001, recruited to help
keep his practice afloat after state regulators yanked his medical
license late in 2000.

OxyContin, marketed as a time-release painkiller, can be crushed and
swallowed, snorted or injected by drug abusers for a heroinlike
euphoria. More than 200 Philadelphia-area deaths have been linked to
oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin, since January 2000.

At least one of those deaths was connected to Paolino - that of a
Philadelphia woman who overdosed on OxyContin he had prescribed.
Because the victim had taken the pills from a relative who was
Paolino's patient, Gambardella said, the doctor could not be
prosecuted for her death. Paolino was not charged with any other deaths.

Many of Paolino's prescriptions were filled in the river wards of
Philadelphia, where several oxycodone deaths have occurred and where
street dealers have peddled the pills for many times their value.

Even more troubling, Heckler said, was Paolino's habit of prescribing
the potent, addictive drug to patients with relatively minor ailments.
It was "akin to killing a mouse with an atom bomb," the judge said.

Yet in portions of his written statement, Paolino cast himself simply
as "a victim of the OxyContin controversy."

Asked later by reporters whether he should have been more contrite,
Paolino replied: "No, I think my comments were appropriate."

As he waited for the doors of a courthouse elevator to close, Paolino
asked reporters to tell his patients "that I love them and I wish I
could still be there to treat them."

Four of those patients rallied behind him yesterday, testifying that
Paolino was a kind and competent doctor.

Julie Fisher of Philadelphia said Paolino "was the only doctor who
would listen to me" after other doctors dismissed her complaints of
feeling poorly. Diagnostic tests ordered by Paolino revealed a kidney
tumor that was successfully removed.

"I would not be here today if it wasn't for him," she said.

Another patient, Joseph Yannuzzi Jr. of Philadelphia, said Paolino
treated him for free when he had no health insurance and saved his
mother's life by ordering tests that found an operable brain tumor.

"We've all made mistakes in our lives," Yannuzzi told Heckler, "but it
would be a waste to have him sitting in prison, doing nothing."

But his flip side, prosecutors said, was sinister. Over the four
months between the time he lost his medical license and his arrest,
Paolino prescribed more than 53,000 pills, testified Brian Rucker, an
agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

"He put people in danger," Gambardella said. "People look at him, as
did the people who came in here today, and call him a doctor.

"He's not a doctor," the prosecutor said. "He's a drug dealer."
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