We must act now to stem the opioid crisis


A Merrick pain doctor, Michael Belfiore, 58, was sentenced on Dec. 16 to 23 years in prison after he was convicted of selling opioid prescriptions to patients, many of whom were desperately addicted to opioids and often writhing in pain from a variety of injuries. Belfiore might have begun his career as a respected doctor, but he ended it ignominiously, as a common drug dealer.
We were pleased that Belfiore was given a tough sentence, after he arrogantly fought the charges against him in 2014 and 2016, despite overwhelming evidence against him. His case should serve as a stiff warning for any doctor thinking of selling scripts for cash: The law will eventually catch up with you, and you will eventually be sent to prison for a long time.
It’s about time the law caught up with the medical practitioners who, in part, at least, have fueled the opioid crisis that the nation, including Long Island, now faces.
Belfiore’s case is especially egregious. According to federal officials, he wrote 5,000 prescriptions for 600,000 pain pills between January 2010 and March 2013. His case is, however, anything but unique. There are many like him.
On top of that, too many doctors have overprescribed opioids for patients without giving proper thought to the possible long-term consequences of their actions. To be clear: This is not every doctor. Most physicians follow the rules. The doctors who have cavalierly prescribed opioids as their default practice, however, are partly to blame for the addiction pandemic that we find ourselves in now.
The coronavirus pandemic has only worsened the opioid addiction crisis. In the first year of the pandemic, between April 2020 and April of this year, the U.S. recorded 100,000 opioid overdose deaths — 100,000! That meant an American died every five minutes of an overdose.
President Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better legislation — which Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, effectively killed last weekend by refusing to vote for it — included $11 billion to fight the opioid crisis, which is now increasingly driven by fentanyl, a powerful opioid.
There remains a chance that the legislation could eventually pass. If it does not, though, there will be any number of consequences for the nation, not the least of which will be reduced resources to cope with the opioid crisis. Shame on Senator Manchin.
Earlier this year, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran directed $15.3 million to addiction prevention and treatment services from a $230 million settlement that New York state reached with the pharmaceutical manufacturer Johnson & Johnson for its part in causing the opioid crisis, which has plagued the U.S. since the late 1990s. With the settlement, Johnson & Johnson avoided a trial.
Last summer, state Attorney General Letitia James filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the state against pharmaceutical giants Teva Pharmaceuticals, Amerisource Bergen, McKesson Corp, Endo Pharmaceuticals, Allergan Finance and Cardinal Health. The outcome of that suit remains to be seen.
We must also remember this: The opioid crisis gave rise 10 years ago to a heroin crisis. This is how we described it in an April 2010 story, “From painkillers to heroin addiction”: “Nassau County police say that prescription painkillers have flooded the local illegal drug market in the past decade, which is driving the recent spike in heroin use . . .
“With the drugs readily accessible, painkiller and heroin addicts are getting younger and younger, according to the experts . . . In the past, the average age of the heroin addicts . . . was 24. Now, most are 18 to 23. Many begin using prescription painkillers at parties as young as 14 and 15. When the painkillers become too expensive — they sell for $80 per pill on the street — the teens graduate to heroin, which goes for as little as $5 a bag.”
Not much has changed over the past decade — except the drugs have become more powerfully addictive and potentially deadly, and the crisis has only gotten worse, not better, as we had hoped.
A two-pronged approach that mobilizes both police and therapists is needed to address the crisis. That requires money. Nassau County Executive-elect Bruce Blakeman will take office in a week. We urge him to prioritize funding for drug enforcement and addiction treatment.