Alexander DeLuca, M.D.
State and federal narcotics agents didn't have appointments Monday afternoon when they stormed into the South East Medical Center.
They didn't need them. They had a search warrant instead.
The agents left with the records from a dozen patients of Paul Heberle, D.O., a family physician who practices at the 1306 E. 38th St. office. The search was part of an investigation by the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency into Heberle's narcotic-prescribing habits.
"There is an ongoing investigation, and it's premature to talk about it at this time," said Dennis Tobin, regional director of the state Attorney General's Bureau of Narcotics and Drug Control.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Heberle had not been charged with any crime. He has closed his practice, at least temporarily, but is still working as an emergency physician at Millcreek Community Hospital.
Heberle denied any wrongdoing and said agents are targeting physicians who prescribe a lot of OxyContin and other narcotics.
"They're coming after me because I'm one of the only local doctors treating people with chronic pain," said Heberle, 39.
Agents started investigating Heberle after one of his patients died Jan. 4 from an apparent overdose of the painkiller fentanyl. They came to his office eight days later and took the patient's records.
The Attorney General's Office also received complaints from several local pharmacists regarding Heberle's apparent excessive narcotic prescribing habits, according to the affidavit of probable cause that agents gave Heberle when they conducted Monday's search.
"My patient ate her Duragesic patch and died," Heberle said, referring to a fentanyl delivery system. "That's a two-, three-day supply of medicine. How can you blame a doctor for that?
"As for the pharmacists, they don't treat chronic-pain patients, so of course they freak out when they see high doses,"Heberle added. "Those are the doses these patients require."
Craig Johnston, D.O., a local physician contracted by the state Attorney General's Office, looked at prescription records of several of Heberle's patients. He determined there was sufficient reason to review whether the drugs were medically necessary, the affidavit stated.
A local pharmacist, Jeff Strasser, told agents that one of Heberle's patients displayed unusual behavior while picking up a prescription for OxyContin. The behavior caused Strasser to believe the patient was using the drugs in an illicit manner.
"If I find out one of my patients is selling their drugs or lying to me, I give them the boot," said Heberle, who added that he kicked a cocaine habit himself in the early 1990s. "But it's not right to not give someone the medication they legitimately need."
Many of Heberle's patients formerly were treated by David Klees, D.O., a family doctor currently serving 13½ to 29 years in state prison for writing illegal prescriptions.
Other physicians see what has happened to Klees and Heberle and are reluctant to write prescriptions for narcotics.
"Under this legal atmosphere, we're not going to expose ourselves," said Tony Ruffa, D.O., a family physician who helps addicted patients wean themselves off drugs. "Many family doctors have stopped prescribing OxyContin, including myself."
Heberle doesn't know what will happen next. He hasn't been charged and doesn't know if he will be. Agents asked him Monday to voluntarily give up his DEA license to prescribe controlled drugs.
"I'm sure they are going to try to destroy me in any way possible," Heberle said. "They searched my home in Edinboro because my wife does the office's billing. They went through her underwear drawers. What could possibly be in there?"