Jan. 24, 2017 By Hannah Wulkan
Seven people were arrested yesterday for participating in a prescription drug scheme that involved forging prescriptions from an Astoria physician’s office and using them to put more than $3 million in pain killers on the street.
According to representatives from the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor’s Prescription Drug Investigation Unit and the Drug Enforcement Administration, two men—deemed the ringleaders– forged oxycodone prescriptions from an Astoria physician’s office and then hired friends and family to fill them at pharmacies in Queens and Brooklyn from December 2011 until this month.
The name of the physician nor the exact address of the Astoria office was disclosed by investigators.
Joseph Bivona, 45, and Steven Keller, 53, have been charged with running the prescription forgery ring. Over the course of the scheme, 930 phony prescriptions were filled and more than 160,000 pain pills with a street value of $3 million were distributed.
“There is a close link between the illegal traffic in pain pills and record numbers of overdose deaths in New York City,” said Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan. “We will continue our efforts to identify and prosecute anyone involved in this deadly trade.”
According to the charges, the ring began operation in December 2011, having runners fill the fake prescriptions, usually for 180 30mg pills, at pharmacies around the city, sometimes with one runner making up to eight runs per month.
In 2013 the city introduced I-STOP regulations under which physicians must consult a database detailing a patient’s prescription history before prescribing painkillers, and giving pharmacies access to the same information. When the I-STOP program was introduced, the ring changed its methods and had each runner only fill prescriptions once per month to avoid detection.
New I-STOP regulations went in to effect in March of 2016 that mandated physicians only use electronic prescriptions to stop forgeries. However, a physician can apply for a waiver to continue using paper prescriptions, and at least one pharmacy had a waiver on file from the pain management clinic in question, indicating another shift in strategy for the forgery ring.
Bivona and Keller were arrested Monday in their homes in Queens and Long Island respectively, and police found $60,000 cash during a court-authorized search of Keller’s home.
Both Bivona and Keller have been charged with conspiracy in the fourth degree, operating as a major trafficker, five counts of criminal possessionof a forged instrument in the second degree, and five counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree.
Five other members of the ring, Paulita Hernandez, Joanne Bivona, Alexio Cunto, Nicole Colletta, and Tracy Staten have been charged variously with conspiracy in the fourth degree, criminal possession of a forged instrument in the second degree and criminal possession of a controlled substance in the third degree.
All seven suspects were arraigned yesterday in the Manhattan Supreme Court.