Thursday, March 3, 2011

Former Needham doctor and nurse practitioner indicted in six overdose deaths



Former Needham doctor and nurse practitioner indicted in six overdose deaths

Posted by Andrew Ryan, Globe Metro Desk March 3, 2011 04:12 PM

A former Needham doctor and his nurse practitioner caused the overdose deaths of at least six people by systematically prescribing medically unnecessary painkillers in order to make a profit, according to charges made public today in federal court in Boston.

Globe 2007 file photo

Joseph Zolot

Dr. Joseph Zolot, a specialist in non-surgical orthopedics who ran an office in Needham, and nurse practitioner Lisa Pliner were indicted on charges of conspiring to illegally distribute controlled substances, including methadone, oxycodone, and fentanyl; and six counts each of distribution of methadone that resulted in the deaths. Law enforcement officials said it is one of the most significant cases of medical malpractice to reach a criminal court anywhere in the country recently.
Zolot and Pliner appeared in US District Court today where Magistrate Judge Judith Dein ordered both held pending a detention hearing set for tomorrow.
Laura B. Angelini, Pliner’s attorney, told reporters that Pliner continues to work in the medical field as a registered nurse. Pliner let her nurse practioner license lapse several years ago.
“Lisa Pliner is a licensed registered nurse with an impeccable record of service to her patients,’’ Angelini said. “She anxiously looks forward to vindicating herself in front of a jury.’’
The indictment alleges Zolot and Pliner knew their patients were addicted to drugs, including street drugs such as cocaine, but that they prescribed medically unnecessary painkillers in exchange for cash, or payments from insurance companies.
“Many of these prescriptions were issued despite indications that the individuals to whom the prescriptions were being provided were abusing, misusing, or illegally distributing drugs,’’ federal officials allege in the indictment unsealed this afternoon.
“On a number of occasions, the prescriptions issued by Zolot and Pliner resulted in addiction, deteriorated health, overdose and death,’’ according to the indictment.
But Zolot’s defense attorney, David Meier -- who called the deaths of Zolot’s patients “horrible tragedies’’-- lashed out at federal prosecutors for pursuing criminal charges against his client.
“The deaths alleged by the government in today's indictments are horrible tragedies,'' Meier said. "So, too, is the fact the government has chosen to to charge Dr. Zolot with criminal conduct for the manner in which he practiced medicine and treated patients''
He added, “At all times, Dr. Zolot acted in good faith as a doctor. His intent was to do good as a doctor. It was never his intent to cause harm -- never mind death -- to any patient.’’
Meier, the former chief homicide prosecutor for Suffolk County, also stressed that Zolot and his family have known about the investigation into his medical practices for several years, but have remained in the Boston area, confident in his innocence.
“They intend to vigorously defend against these charges and they look forward to their day in court,’’ Meier said, adding that Zolot “has successfully treated thousands and thousands of patients.’’
The investigation looked at records as far back as 2003, and Needham and Boston police started the probe after complaints about the prescriptions. A task force of state, local, and federal agents was set up, and at one point authorities were probing two dozen deaths, law enforcement sources said.
According to records, Zolot graduated from Russia’s Leningrad Pediatric Medical Institute in 1974, and was first licensed to practice medicine in Massachusetts in 1993. He immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1988.
Pliner graduated from Rostov State University in Russia and majored in computer science. After immigrating here from Russia in 1991, she earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Simmons College and a master’s degree in nursing from Regis College. She started working with Zolot in 2003, according to records.

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