A Milton physician who once ran a thriving drug-treatment clinic affiliated with St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton was arraigned last week on charges that he illegally prescribed Suboxone, an opiate-addiction medication often resold as a street drug, to nine patients whose urine tests showed they were not taking any.
The state charges against Dr. Richard Ng, 54, as well as others who worked with him, depict a medical practice that allegedly turned a blind eye to the diversion potential of Suboxone and engaged in coercive business practices.
The clinic’s former office manager, Renee Andrews, 43, of Hudson, N.H., was accused of orchestrating kickback schemes in which two drug-testing labs had to pay the full-time salaries of some of her staff, including her daughter, nephew, and boyfriend, in return for getting the clinic lucrative patient referrals. The scheme was valued at about $600,000.
The case was brought by Attorney General Martha Coakley’s Medicaid Fraud division, which recovered some $85 million last year, much of it from prosecuting cases involving substance-abuse services paid for by MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid insurance for the poor.
Ng, a graduate of Tufts Medical School, has pleaded not guilty Thursday in Suffolk Superior Court to the charges that focus on his patient care between 2006 and 2008.
His lawyer, Ingrid Martin of Boston, said the doctor was given no warning that he was being criminally investigated, learning of it only when prosecutors announced his indictment last month .
Martin said she is confident he will be found innocent after the full facts are known.
“These charges do not reflect the reality of Dr. Ng, who is a superb physician and a dedicated father with seven children, four of whom are adopted,” Martin said.
Chris Murphy, a spokesman for Steward Health Care, which bought the hospital chain that included St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in 2010, said records show that Ng was terminated by the hospital in 2008, though he declined to say why.
Ng’s lawyer also declined to say why Ng left the hospital, where he had trained as a resident and worked virtually continuously until 2008. A spokesman for the Board of Registration in Medicine said Ng still has an active medical license. Ng’s lawyer declined to say where he is currently working.
Dr. Jacquelyn Starer, president-elect of the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said the diversion of Suboxone is the “highest-alert issue” among addiction physicians. Drug addiction specialists say Suboxone has shown some initial promise as a way to curb withdrawal symptoms and help patients go through detox at home; still, the drug is merely a transition substance and leading a drug-free life requires psychotherapy and close monitoring to taper off Suboxone.
Doctors, who must get federal authorization to prescribe Suboxone, are allowed to prescribe it for only 30 patients in their first year, and later can prescribe for up to 100 patients, Starer said.
Prosecutors said Ng expanded the clinic until he was treating more than he was legally allowed to and boosted his annual earnings to more than $575,000 in salary and bonuses. Ng was also charged with writing multiple Suboxone prescriptions in false patient names to provide the drug to two patients who had lost their insurance.
Prosecutors say the nine patients of Ng’s whose drug screens showed they were not ingesting their prescribed Suboxone were shown to still be on illegal street drugs, such as heroin. Still, the doctor allegedly continued to give them Suboxone.
Aside from Ng and Andrews, both of whom have pleaded not guilty, Franey Medical Lab in Hyannis and Kathleen Franey-Lopes, 35, of Marston Mills, the daughter of the lab’s owner, also face Medicaid fraud charges. An arraignment is scheduled for April 16.