Geoffrey S. Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced the conviction yesterday of ERNESTO LOPEZ, a New York-licensed medical doctor who wrote thousands of medically unnecessary prescriptions for oxycodone and fentanyl over an approximately three-year period, following an eight-day trial before the Honorable Denise L. Cote. LOPEZ was remanded into custody following his conviction. Audra Baker, a medical assistant who worked in one of LOPEZ’s medical offices, and who was tried with LOPEZ, was acquitted of all charges against her.
U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman stated: “As the jury unanimously recognized, Ernesto Lopez betrayed his patients and the public, peddling dangerous opioids to addicts and drug dealers for his own personal financial profit. His flagrant drug dealing is all the more shocking coming as it did from a licensed medical professional who has taken an oath to do no harm to his patients.”
As reflected in the Indictment, documents previously filed in the case, and evidence introduced at trial:
From approximately 2015 until his arrest in November 2017, LOPEZ operated medical clinics in New York, New York, Jackson Heights, New York, and Franklin Square, New York, where LOPEZ, who purported to specialize in pain management, wrote thousands of prescriptions for oxycodone and fentanyl in exchange for cash payments. In total, LOPEZ wrote prescriptions for nearly one million oxycodone pills, with a street value of approximately $20 million. LOPEZ typically charged $200 to $300 in cash for patient visits, despite the fact that nearly 80 percent of his patients had health insurance. During many patient visits, LOPEZ neither performed a meaningful physical examination of patients, nor attempted to diagnose them. Instead, a typical such patient visit consisted primarily of recording a patient’s vital signs and sometimes involved the brief movement of a patient’s limbs. LOPEZ then prescribed large quantities of oxycodone, most frequently 120 30-milligram tablets, and fentanyl patches.
In addition to prescribing oxycodone and fentanyl patches to patients without a legitimate medical need, LOPEZ also prescribed to many patients a fentanyl-based spray, called Subsys, which was intended to treat breakthrough cancer pain, for which those patients – many of whom did not have cancer – had no legitimate medical need. In connection with these prescriptions, LOPEZ submitted an application to INSYS Therapeutics to join a so-called “speaker’s program,” where doctors received payments in exchange for prescribing the fentanyl-based spray to patients.
LOPEZ also provided loose oxycodone pills, without a prescription, directly to at least one patient on multiple occasions, instructed an employee to fill a prescription for oxycodone pills and then to give the pills to LOPEZ, and instructed the same employee to crush an oxycodone pill and put the resulting powder into a urine sample, so as to cheat a drug test.
At the time of LOPEZ’s arrest, law enforcement agents recovered, among other things, hundreds of fentanyl sprays and patches from his residence, along with approximately $729,000 in cash in boxes.
After the verdict was announced, Judge Cote said: “Lives were destroyed and damaged. People have suffered enormously because of what the doctor chose to do for those years.”
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LOPEZ, 75, of Flushing, New York, was convicted of one count of conspiring to distribute oxycodone and fentanyl outside the usual course of professional practice and without legitimate medical need, and eight counts of distributing oxycodone outside the usual course of professional practice and without legitimate medical need. Each count carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. The maximum potential sentences are prescribed by Congress and are provided here for informational purposes only, as the sentencing of the defendant will be determined by Judge Cote on June 11, 2019.
Mr. Berman praised the outstanding investigative work of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s New York Tactical Diversion Squad. Mr. Berman also thanked the New York City Police Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, the New York City Department of Investigation, the New York State Office of the Medicaid Inspector General, the New York City Human Resources Administration, the Nassau County Police Department and Asset Forfeiture Unit, the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, the New York County District Attorney’s Office, and the New York State Department of Financial Services for their work on the investigation.
Parts of this case were conducted under the auspices of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force (OCDETF), a partnership between federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. The principal mission of the OCDETF program is to identify, disrupt, and dismantle the most serious drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, and money laundering organizations and those primarily responsible for the nation’s illegal drug supply.
This case is being handled by the Office’s Narcotics Unit. Assistant United States Attorneys Nicholas Folly, Elizabeth Hanft, and Michael McGinnis are in charge of the prosecution.