Two weeks after charges that he illegally prescribed opioids were dismissed on a technicality, Merrick physician Michael Belfiore has been re-indicted by a federal grand jury, this time accused of causing two overdose deaths.
According to the indictment, released on June 29, Belfiore, by improperly prescribing opioids, caused the deaths of James Ubaghs, of Baldwin, and Edward Martin, of East Rockaway.
Prosecutors allege that Belfiore prescribed Ubaghs more than 150 30-milligram oxycodone pills “without a legitimate medical purpose” multiple times between September 2011 and March 2013.
Then, in April 2013, according to court documents, Belfiore wrote a final prescription for Ubaghs. According to an obituary, Ubaghs died “suddenly” on April 13, at 32.
Belfiore was being prosecuted in federal court for illegally prescribing opioids for his own profit in federal court until June 16, when Judge Joseph Bianco dismissed all the charges against him because certain language was missing from the indictment.
It took prosecutors less than two weeks to re-present to a new grand jury and issue a new indictment, with the overdose death-related charges carrying a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years and a $10 million fine, if Belfiore is convicted.
“As alleged in the indictment, Dr. Belfiore’s illegal distribution of oxycodone tragically caused the overdose deaths of two young men,” Acting U.S. Attorney Bridget Rohde said in a statement. “Medical professionals who issue prescriptions without a legitimate medical purpose are violating the law and will be held accountable, especially when they cause the death of the very patients they have a duty to heal.”
Belfiore’s attorney, Tom Liotti, has argued that Belfiore depended on deceptive marketing materials from opioid manufacturers that have duped doctors into overprescribing opioid pain medication, and that the blame should lie with these companies.
The idea that patients were suffering unnecessarily, and that doctors should more aggressively treat pain using the medications was emphasized with 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 in an April interview with the Herald.
Liotti said last Friday that Belfiore would again plead not guilty — and that the overdose deaths included in the new indictment are “retaliation” by prosecutors angered by the June 16 dismissal.
“Honestly, the indictment is dirty tricks, as far as I’m concerned,” said Liotti. “They were just supposed to go back and plug in the [missing] language about legitimate medical purpose.
“They have overdone this because of the dismissal, I think,” he continued. “What they’re really trying to do is prejudice any potential jurors, and so forth.”
Belfiore has also moved to intervene in Suffolk County’s lawsuit against opioid manufacturers, including Purdue Pharma, and has been named a defendant in a suit filed by Nassau County. Attorneys for both counties claim, in court documents, that they are seeking relief for millions of dollars they have shelled out fighting a drug epidemic that companies like Purdue, and doctors like Belfiore, helped create.
When asked if he would be forging ahead with defending Belfiore by casting blame on drug manufacturers, Liotti said, “Like you can’t believe. It’s time to fix the bayonets.”
Belfiore was arraigned in U.S. District Court in Central Islip last Friday, where he pleaded not guilty. A jury trial is tentatively scheduled for the week of Nov. 27.