Doctor, nurse practitioner and practice employee charged in opioid diversion scheme

Hydrocodone opioid pills
Three defendants face up to 20 years in prison in a scheme that put millions of dollars' worth of opioids on New York streets. (Getty/smartstock)

A New York doctor, a pediatric nurse practitioner and a practice employee were arrested last week and charged in a scheme that prosecutors said put millions of dollars' worth of opioids on the street.

The three defendants were arrested Thursday and charged in Manhattan federal court with conspiracy to distribute controlled substances, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the southern district of New York.

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Those under arrest include Ernesto Lopez, M.D., a 74-year-old New York-licensed doctor who allegedly wrote thousands of medically unnecessary prescriptions for oxycodone and fentanyl patches over an approximately three-year period; Sharon Washington-Bhamre, 52, a nurse practitioner who wrote medically unnecessary prescriptions for oxycodone; and Audra Baker, 49, an employee who assisted Lopez in operating two of his medical offices and who prosecutors said helped facilitate the diversion scheme. Lopez operated offices in Manhattan, Jackson Heights and Franklin Square.  

“As alleged, these defendants acted like drug dealers in lab coats, directly contributing to the glut of highly addictive opioids flooding the streets of New York City and its surrounding communities,” Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said in a statement.

Prosecutors said Lopez wrote prescriptions for large quantities of the drugs in exchange for cash payments. Between 2015 and the time of his arrest, he wrote more than 8,000 oxycodone prescriptions resulting in an estimated $2 million in fees, as he charged $200 to $300 in cash for “patient visits.” Officials said patients then sold the drugs to a dealer who resold the prescribed drugs on the streets.

Washington-Bhamre is accused of writing prescriptions for people she did not examine and whose names were provided by the unnamed drug dealer. If convicted, the three defendants face up to 20 years in prison.

An opioid commission appointed by President Donald Trump last week issued a final report that outlined more than 50 recommendations to combat the country’s opioid epidemic including new federal prescribing guidelines, enforcement strategies to target drug trafficking and expanded recovery efforts.

The Department of Justice earlier this year created a unit that will use healthcare fraud data to combat the opioid epidemic. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said law enforcement officials will go after doctors and other medical professionals who overprescribe opioids. That unit has already indicted a Pittsburgh-area doctor with unlawful distribution of opioids.