Hector Castro, Leader In Latino Healthcare, Target of Drug Bust

Twelve years ago, Dr. Hector Castro founded the first New York City health clinic dedicated to providing high-quality, bilingual care to the city's working class Latino population. On Tuesday, he was dragged from his home by police. An undercover investigation found that Castro, with the help of his assistant, had peddled $10 million worth of Oxycodone pills behind the clinic's walls.

Castro and his office manager, Patricia Valera (whose street name purportedly is "Kardashian"), are, reports New York's Daily News, accused of working with two interstate drug rings and then selling prescriptions for the powerful painkillers at $125 a pop through the Itzamna Medical Center.

"This is just drug dealing while wearing a lab coat," said Brian Crowell, a special agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. "It's no different from a street hood pitching bags of heroin."

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The bust involved the arrest of 47 people in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and the seizure of more than 30 weapons, the DEA New York Field Division announced at a Thursday press conference. Officials alleged that Castro had sold prescriptions to as many as 100 people, many of them dealers themselves. In New Jersey alone, that added up to 4,500 prescriptions, or 500,000 pills, between September 2011 and February 2013, originating at Castro's office.

Authorities said that they were first tipped to the operation when a Woodbridge, N.J., man died of an overdose in December 2011, and they found a pill bottle at the scene prescribed by Castro. The doctor, who also ran the Latino Health Institute at the Beth Israel Medical Center, ended up selling 28 prescriptions to an undercover police officer, officials said.

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Castro is charged with selling 39 prescriptions. His assistant, Valera, and her husband, however, face 464 charges for allegedly stealing 155 prescription sheets from Castro and hawking them for $500 each, reports the Daily News. Authorities claim to have seized during the arrest $20,000 in cash from Castro's home and $8,000 in cash from Valera's, in addition to a loaded handgun.

Among other recent cases in which doctors were punished for or accused of selling prescription painkillers to addicts and drug runners: In 2010, a Los Angeles doctor was sentenced to four years in federal prison for peddling hydrocodone, sold under the brand names Vicodin and Norco, sometimes to his son's friends. In March 2012, a Las Vegas physician was arrested for allegedly selling Oxycodone. And a couple months later, another California doctor was charged with selling prescriptions to addicts -- at $240 for the first appointment and $100 for each subsequent one -- even after their families begged her to stop.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called painkiller abuse an "epidemic" related to 1.3 million emergency room visits in 2010. Every year, around an estimated 15,000 people die from overdosing on painkillers -- more than from heroin and cocaine combined.
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