Pubdate: Thu, 04 Apr 2002
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2002 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Author: Larry King, Inquirer Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Oxycontin)


Three Said They Saw Unusual Requests For Two Substances. A Bucks Doctor Is 

For one Fishtown pharmacist, it was an unexpected, summer flurry of 
prescriptions for strong, seldom-requested drugs.

For another, it was a visit from four men with identical slips for the same 
drugs - OxyContin and Xanax - and the way they giggled when questioned 
about the prescribing doctor.

A third pharmacist, in Bensalem, noticed a similar increase in demand and a 
new, curious clientele with addresses miles away in Philadelphia.

What the three men were seeing, prosecutors contend, were signs of a 
growing black market in OxyContin and Xanax - one that flooded the streets 
of Philadelphia's river wards with the addictive prescription drugs in late 
2000 and early 2001.

The pharmacists' accounts came during the first full day of testimony in 
the trial of Richard G. Paolino, the Bensalem doctor accused of being the 
Philadelphia area's chief supplier of illicitly obtained OxyContin.

Paolino, 58, is on trial in Bucks County Court after a series of 
postponements. Prosecutors say he needlessly prescribed OxyContin and Xanax 
to addicts and street dealers, all without a medical license.

Also on trial is Philadelphia physician Wesley Collier, 52, accused of 
helping Paolino by signing hundreds of blank prescriptions for him to complete.

OxyContin is a powerful narcotic made in time-release tablets that addicts 
abuse by crushing and snorting for a heroin-like high. Its abuse has been 
blamed for dozens of deaths in this area, but Paolino has not been linked 
to any of them.

Between Nov. 1, 2000, and Feb. 1, 2001, Paolino wrote at least 1,200 
prescriptions for OxyContin, investigators say.

According to pharmacist Ronald Hyman, the wave of prescriptions from 
Paolino's Hulmeville Road practice began months earlier.

In July, Hyman testified, he began getting 10 to 15 prescriptions per week 
for OxyContin and Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug. Before that, he had only 
rarely seen OxyContin requests.

Worse, Hyman said, the prescriptions called for large doses that "would 
pretty much knock [the users] for a loop, so that they wouldn't know 
whether they were coming or going."

But when he called Paolino to question the prescriptions, Hyman said, 
Paolino "basically told me to mind my own business. If I didn't want to 
fill it, don't fill it, and he would tell the patients where [else] to go."

Hyman said he refused to fill any prescriptions written by Paolino and 
wound up calling federal drug agents, who began an investigation.

In another Fishtown pharmacy, Robert Horton was also noticing suspicious 
prescriptions from Paolino's practice.

One day, Horton testified, four men in their 20s came in with prescriptions 
for OxyContin and Xanax.

"I laid [the drugs] out in front of them and said, 'Doesn't this tell you 
something about the doctor?' " Horton recalled. "And they just started to 

Horton, too, said he refused to fill Paolino's prescriptions. He also 
called federal drug agents when Paolino failed to return his repeated phone 

In Bensalem, pharmacist Stephen Chesin worked close enough to Paolino's 
office to have filled many of his patients' prescriptions. But toward the 
end of 2000, he said, he was getting more demands for OxyContin and Xanax, 
mostly from unfamiliar customers who lived in Philadelphia.

"I don't believe I filled those," Chesin testified. "I returned them to the 

At the same time, Paolino's practice was seeing a surge in new 
"pain-management" patients, testified Catherine Helmlinger, a nurse who 
worked for Paolino for 18 years.

Meanwhile, state regulators yanked Paolino's medical license in November 
2000 because he had not maintained malpractice insurance. In January 2001, 
he temporarily hired two Philadelphia doctors - Collier and David Harmon - 
to help him maintain his practice.

According to prosecutors, the two saw no patients, but signed hundreds of 
blank prescriptions for Paolino.

Harmon, 53, pleaded guilty in February to practicing without a license, 
delivering a controlled substance, and conspiracy. While not yet sentenced, 
he agreed to testify.

Harmon confirmed yesterday that he signed the blank forms, but said he 
didn't realize it was illegal. The only thing that gave him pause, Harmon 
said, was the amounts of the drugs Paolino was prescribing.

"It was way beyond what I was comfortable with," Harmon said. "I told him 
he needed to wean those patients down."
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