Indicted Merrick doctor to use industry video as defense in pain pill trial


Dr. Michael Belfiore, of Merrick, who is currently facing federal charges, says that throughout most of his medical career, doctors such as himself were pushed to prescribe opioid pain medications, while the drugs’ dangers were severely downplayed by the pharmaceutical industry.

Belfiore is trying to join a Suffolk County suit in the State Supreme Court against Purdue Pharma and other companies in hopes that a favorable verdict in that case will help vindicate him in federal criminal court. According to Belfiore, it’s companies like Purdue, and a lax federal government, that are to blame for the current opioid epidemic.

Lead counsel for Suffolk County, Paul Hanly, of Simmons Hanly Conroy, said Wednesday that the county opposes Belfiore’s motion to intervene.

“Intervention would only complicate an already complex case, and in any event, Dr. Belfiore has no right to intervene under applicable law and rules,” said Hanly.

Last week, Belfiore and his attorney, Tom Liotti, shared with the Herald part of their planned defense in the federal case: a 1998 promotional video put out by Purdue in which a doctor explicitly sells opioids as “our best, strongest tools for pain,” and calls the idea that they have a propensity for causing addiction “a misconception.”

“This is the way we were brought up,” Belfiore murmured, as the video played in Liotti’s office.

The video features one patient suffering from fibromyalgia symptoms positively discussing his regimen of 160 milligrams of oxycodone per day, and Spanos stressing that opioid medications cannot damage the kidneys or liver, and “are very safe medications if used correctly.”

The rate of addiction for patients being treated using opioid medications is “much less than 1 percent,” Spanos also said in the video. “They should be used much more than they are.”

Spanos also explains the concept of “pseudo-addiction,” in the video, as a patient appearing to be drug-addicted because they are pursuing pain relief. This, he said, may unnecessarily concern doctors and keep them from prescribing opioids.

The same promotional video was ridiculed last year in a segment on the opioid epidemic on the HBO show “Last Night with John Oliver.”

The idea that patients were suffering unnecessarily, and that doctors should more aggressively treat pain using the medications was hammered into doctors until very recently, according to Belfiore, in industry publications, at dinners and conferences.

“Imagine that you’re sitting there with all the other doctors, and they’re telling you that nobody’s listening to these people or making any difference for them,” he said.

By intervening in the Suffolk case — in which the county is seeking reimbursement for Medicaid and Medicare payments related to the opioid epidemic — Belfiore and Liotti said they hope that a civil victory of any sort would be enough to, at least partially, prove his innocence in the federal criminal case.

“There are literally tens of thousands of victims across this nation where they and their surviving families are not aware of the complicity of the government and Big Pharma in creating these tragic addictions and deaths,” Liotti wrote.

When asked last week if he intends to “go all the way” and see the civil case against “Big Pharma” through to its conclusion, Belfiore said, “I have to.”