Philadelphia psychiatrist charged in diversion of 24,000 Pills for Cash; Blair County pediatrician charged with diverting opioids to a paramour
HARRISBURG — Reflecting the pervasive impact of the opioid epidemic in every corner of Pennsylvania, Attorney General Josh Shapiro today announced charges in two separate cases against a Philadelphia psychiatrist and a Blair County pediatrician for illegally prescribing opioids and other drugs to patients.
Dr. Bruce Lief, 77, of Wayne, a Philadelphia psychiatrist, was arrested Wednesday for illegally prescribing 24,990 Oxycodone, OxyContin, Methadone and other pills to at least four patients. Lief is charged with violations of the Controlled Substance Act and related offenses.
Meanwhile, Dr. Rebecca L. Delbaggio, 46, a Hollidaysburg pediatrician, was arrested this week in another case and charged with illegally writing prescriptions for Oxycodone and Xanax for her paramour, Andrew Smithmyer, 26, of Altoona, who was also charged.
“As these cases show, the illegal diversion of prescription drugs is fueling the opioid epidemic across Pennsylvania,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said. “Last year, our arrests for diversions increased 72 percent from the previous year. Whether you’re a psychiatrist in Philadelphia, a pediatrician in Blair County or a dealer on a street corner, if you illegally divert prescription drugs, you will be prosecuted by my office.”
Attorney General Shapiro is combatting illegal diversions on multiple fronts. Last year, Shapiro appointed Bob Smulktis to the new position of Director of Diversion, coordinating all efforts in the Attorney General’s office aimed at stopping the illegal diversion of prescription drugs. Nineteen agents are spread across the state, and the Attorney General has requested additional resources from the legislature to strengthen his office’s multi-pronged approach to the epidemic. In 2017, Office of Attorney General agents charged 216 persons for illegally diverting prescription drugs.
Studies show that 80 percent of heroin users begin their drug use by abusing prescription opioids.
In the Philadelphia case, Attorney General’s agents were alerted to Lief’s suspicious prescription activity by Whitemarsh Police, who received a tip from a pharmacist at Whitemarsh Pharmacy in Montgomery County. Attorney General Shapiro praised the pharmacist.
“Because of this pharmacist’s vigilance, our agents and Whitemarsh police were able to identify a doctor engaging in illegal prescriptions,” Attorney General Shapiro said. “We’re asking pharmacists and medical professionals across our Commonwealth: If you see something, say something. My office will act on your information and investigate.”
The pharmacist was concerned about an opioid prescription that was routinely dropped off and picked up by the son or daughter-in-law of the patient. She discovered the patient was in a senior living facility — and received pain and other medication directly from facility staff.
When the pharmacist called Lief to verify the prescription, he was evasive. She noted in the pharmacy’s file that staff should no longer fill prescriptions for the patient.
During an interview with investigators, Lief claimed to operate a “pain management” practice in addition to his psychiatric practice. Lief also revealed that he was prescribing opioids to the patient’s son as well. When staff at the nursing home where the patient lived asked him about the excess prescriptions, he abruptly moved out.
Investigators re-interviewed Lief. He admitted he was not certified to practice pain management, but believed he was competent to prescribe pain medication. While agents were present, one of Lief’s pain management patients arrived and dropped off $240 in cash to pay for a “prior visit.” Lief told investigators many of his pain management clients paid in cash. The doctor admitted to prescribing an “excessive amount of opioids” and said he needed the money to pay bills.
Medical files revealed Lief did not physically examine or require patients to be present when he wrote the prescriptions.
Lief was arrested and charged Tuesday and released on $100,000 unsecured bail. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March 16. Lief will be prosecuted by Senior Deputy Attorney General Daniel Sweeney.
In the Blair County case, Dr. Delbaggio, the pediatrician, was charged with illegally writing prescriptions for Oxycodone and Xanax to her paramour, Smithmyer. Delbaggio is charged with violating the Controlled Substance Act and related offenses for prescribing 780 pills. Smithmyer faces similar charges.
Smithmyer was not a patient of the practice where Delbaggio was employed. Delbaggio told investigators she knew Smithmyer was a heroin addict.
Delbaggio told a colleague she had purchased a vehicle for Smithmyer and had given him more than $50,000 over the course of their relationship. Delbaggio intended for Smithmyer to sell the prescriptions she had written to help pay her back.
Delbaggio did not check the Pennsylvania Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), review medical records or perform an examination before writing the prescriptions, as required under Pennsylvania law.
“This arrest highlights the importance of the prescription drug monitoring program. Without this valuable resource, law enforcement may not have been able to determine that drugs were being funneled from a physician for illegal street sales,” said Pete Weeks, Blair County First Assistant District Attorney.
Delbaggio and Smithmyer were arrested and arraigned on charges this week. Bail for Delbaggio was set at $50,000 and for Smithmyer at $25,000. Preliminary hearings are scheduled for March 28. The cases will be prosecuted by the Blair County District Attorney’s Office.
“These illegal diversions are driving this terrible epidemic,” Attorney General Shapiro said. “We’re doing whatever it takes across our Commonwealth to attack this problem in doctors’ offices, medical offices – and anywhere anyone is illegally diverting prescription drugs. Thanks to strong law enforcement collaboration, these doctors will face justice.”
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