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APNewsBreak: NY license suspension in drugs case

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JENNIFER PELTZ | January 24, 2012 07:24 PM EST | AP

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NEW YORK — A doctor facing criminal charges of peddling painkiller prescriptions to addicts and drug dealers overlooked such warning signs as requests for early refills and state reports that patients were doctor-shopping for multiple prescriptions, state officials said in suspending his New York medical license.

Dr. Stan Li also didn't properly explore the causes of the pain some patients claimed or appropriately address the fact that one had been repeatedly hospitalized for drug abuse and another had a drinking problem, according to allegations outlined Monday in a state Board for Professional Medical Conduct document obtained by The Associated Press.

Li prescribed painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs to five patients "purportedly, but not in fact, in the good-faith practice of medicine and intended to deceive," a board lawyer wrote. Prosecutors have said at least 10 of Li's patients died of overdoses and another killed four people in a pharmacy robbery.

Li's lawyer said Tuesday the physician would fight the allegations vigorously and was looking forward to defending himself.

"We believe the charges to be without substance and to have been precipitously brought," attorney Raymond W. Belair wrote. "... He believes any fair-minded evaluation of his pain management practice will find that he acted in conformity with the proper practice of medicine."

Li, 57, is barred from practicing in the state at least until a board committee hearing set for next month.

The disciplinary charges add to the slate of allegations against Li, who pleaded not guilty in November to criminal charges of reckless endangerment and selling prescriptions. The lawyer who represented him at the time said he denied the allegations and had acted responsibly.

Li saw as many as 120 patients a day at a Queens weekend clinic where people lined up in front of his door, and he wrote more than 17,000 prescriptions – mainly for oxycodone and other highly addictive painkillers – in the last 2 1/2 years, city Special Narcotics Prosecutor Bridget G. Brennan's office said.

Investigators found some patients selling drugs right outside the clinic, and inside they found a sign setting out his fees, prosecutors said: $100 a visit for a "low-complexity" patient, or $150 for a "high-complexity" case, including someone seeing more than one doctor, someone seeking more than three prescriptions in one visit or someone with a history of drug abuse. Li took cash and sometimes billed government health programs for the visits, prosecutors said.

Investigators also discovered at least 10 fatal overdoses among his patients, prosecutors said.

One, Michael Cornetta, got prescriptions monthly from Li for oxycodone, the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam (sometimes sold under the trade name Xanax) and fentanyl, a potent pain medication that comes in the form of a patch, prosecutors said. Li went on prescribing the drugs even after Cornetta overdosed and was hospitalized in January 2010 and again that May, prosecutors said. An emergency room doctor called Li about the January overdose, they said.

Cornetta was 40 when he died of a combination of fentanyl, anti-anxiety drugs and cocaine in November 2010, three months after getting his last prescription from Li, prosecutors said.

Li also provided 24 prescriptions filled by David Laffer, who went on to kill four people during a Long Island pharmacy robbery in June, Newsday has reported. Laffer's wife, Melinda Brady, admitted driving the getaway car. He's serving a life sentence; she's serving 25 years.

Li's former lawyer, Aaron M. Wallenstein, said the doctor had refused to keep treating Laffer, Brady and Cornetta. Li made use of a database designed to combat painkiller abuse by tracking patients who seek prescriptions from multiple doctors, Wallenstein said after the doctor's arrest.

Brennan, the special narcotics prosecutor, has disputed that, however, and the state medical board allegations include repeatedly failing to deal appropriately with such information and not moving fast enough to cut off patients who appeared to be abusing the drugs.

Li, certified as an anesthesiologist and a pain management specialist, has worked for a medical group that provides anesthesia at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton in Hamilton, N.J. The hospital said in November it had suspended his clinical privileges.

Originally from China, Li also is licensed in New Jersey, where no disciplinary actions against him appear in the State Board of Medical Examiners' online records. The agency declined to comment Tuesday.

The allegations against Li come amid a federal probe into illegal painkiller sales and against the backdrop of two deadly episodes of gunfire at Long Island pharmacies. After Laffer's deadly spray of bullets, an off-duty federal agent was killed by friendly fire while trying to stop a robbery at another Long Island drugstore last month. The robber also was killed.

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