Pubdate: Wed, 30 Jul 2003
Source: Orlando Sentinel (FL)
Copyright: 2003 Orlando Sentinel
Author: Doris Bloodsworth,  Sentinel Staff Writer


MELBOURNE -- Drug agents Tuesday arrested a pain-clinic doctor and a
number of his patients in a major prescription-drugbust that could be
linked to eight overdose deaths.

Authorities said the arrests are part of a statewide investigation
into the abuse of such powerful narcotics as OxyContin. More patients
and doctors could be arrested in the coming weeks, they said.

Shortly after 9 a.m. agents raided the We Really Care pain clinic on
Sarno Road. They apprehended Dr. Sarfraz "Sam" Mirza, 60, and his
office manager, Jackie Leblanc, 42.

Agents said the small Brevard County clinic, where office visits cost
up to $400, was in disarray, didn't have an examination table or a
working scale. Mirza's pockets were stuffed with cash, police said.He
was arrested on 11 counts of trafficking the painkiller OxyContin, and
state health officials suspended his license. He spent Tuesday at the
Brevard County Jail without bond and faces a judge for the first time

"I have not committed any fraud whatsoever," Mirza said as he was
being led away by agents. "All I've been trying to do is to relieve
patients' suffering and pain."

"Whatever I have done was within ethical and medical standards," he
said. "I was not doing anything wrong."

Leblanc, 42, of Satellite Beach, and Mirza's former receptionist,
Margery Rebensky of Melbourne, 38, were arrested on charges of
obtaining by fraud and trafficking controlled substances, including

Agents arrested nine others Tuesday and have warrants for another 34,
many of whom were patients, who investigators said would sell the
prescription drugs on the street.

"I consider him the same as any street-corner heroin dealer," Joyce
Dawley, the Orlando director of the Florida Department of Law
Enforcement, said of Mirza. "Actually, I think he's worse."

The almost two-year probe began when Melbourne police noticed that
some of Mirza's patients were dying from prescription-drug overdoses.

Melbourne police Lt. Steve Fernez said undercover agents posing as
pain patientsbrought in old X-rays and were able to get prescriptions
for high dosages of OxyContin without examinations or other medical
records. Fernez said the agents were merely asked if they hurt.

Fernez said Mirza, a Pakistannative who has practiced in the United
States for 30 years, did not know that some of his staff were forging

FDLE officials said the investigation uncovered more than 140
fraudulent prescriptions for dozens of different people. The pills
were valued atalmost $1 million representingabout 20,000 dosages of 40
milligram and 80 mg OxyContin.

Sometimes called heroin in pill, an 80 mg OxyContin tablet is equal to
16 Percocets, drug experts said.

OxyContin, manufactured by Purdue Pharma of Stamford, Conn., has been
called a miracle drug by many chronic-pain patients. But during the
past two years, more than 600 Florida residents have died from lethal
amounts of oxycodone, the active ingredient found in OxyContin as well
as Percodan and Percocet.

State records show that while some Central Florida counties saw
decreases in oxycodone deaths, Brevard's have escalated from 12 in
2001 to 32 in 2002.

Drug experts said one of every three drug-related deaths in Florida is
from pharmaceutical drugs, not illegal drugs such as heroin.

While authorities would not identify the cases they are investigating,
a Connecticut family hopes Mirza's arrest could bring answers to the
death of their loved one.

In October 2001, Dale Gregory, a 38-year-old Melbourne mother of a 2-
year-old son, died from an oxycodone overdose. She did not have any
illegal drugs in her system, but her autopsyshowed a host of
pharmaceutical drugs. Police reports show Mirza said he had been
treating Gregory for Crohn's disease, a painful gastrointestinalinflammation,
for two years.

"We've been trying to get a response from the police, but we kept
hitting a stone wall," said a man who identified himself as the
husband of Debbie Colby, Gregory's sister in Milford, Conn.

Those answers might be forthcoming in the continuing investigation as
police interview Mirza, his staff and dozens of his patients.
Investigators copied hundreds of his patient records.Two Brevard
County patients who went to get their prescriptions renewed by Mirza
were distraught over the doctor's arrest.

Donna Benincasa, 55, and Karen Yanovich, said Mirza was a
compassionate doctor who had alleviated their pain where other doctors
had failed.

Benincasa, who took methadone for Crohn's disease, said, "Without him,
life would be extremely difficult these days. I don't think he was
doing anything wrong. But I suspected someone would take advantage of

Yanovich, who took OxyContin for neck and back pain, said, "He was an
excellent doctor. I had no problems with him whatsoever."

Their dismay turned to fear as they realized Mirza's office was closed
with their prescriptions ready to run out.

"What are we going to do?" said Yanovich,a Cocoa Beach woman using a
cane to walk slowly back to her car.

Fernez painted a different picture of Mirza, who county records show
lives in a $1.1 million beachfront home in Melbourne Beach. Fernez
said many of those named in the arrest warrants were not legitimate
pain patients. The investigator said Mirza and his arrested staff
members would prescribe OxyContin to patients who would sell the pills
on the street for $60 or more.

Drug-abusers crush the tablets and snort or inject the powder, which
they say gives them a heroinlike high.

By Tuesday evening, at least a dozen people had been arrested from
Brevard to Marion counties, with more arrests to follow. Authorities
said Mirza's patients came from all across Central Florida.

The FDLE's Dawley said her agency would continue to develop leads
during the interviews and review of patient records.

News of the arrests brought renewed calls for a law to help doctors,
pharmacists and law enforcement identify drug addicts and their suppliers.

Senior officials in Gov. Jeb Bush's administration want legislators to
pass a bill creating a database tracking the millions of prescription
narcotics that pharmacists across Florida dispense.

In November 2001, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth launched an
investigation into how OxyContin was marketed in Florida. He ended the
probe a year later when Purdue Pharma pledged $2 million toward a
prescription-tracking system. But to date, the database has failed to
gain legislative approval.

"If we had the database, we probably could have saved lives," Dawley

Mark Hollis of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel contributed to this
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