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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Steroid Abuse: On The Taxpayers' Tab

Better late than never.  New Jersey Attorney General Paula Dow is forming a committee to look into various measures such as random testing of police officers for steroids (a/k/a performance enhancing drugs, or PEDs).


The Newark Star-Ledger has had a recent series of articles detailing a pattern of steroid abuse among a substantial number of uniformed officers in northern New Jersey.  (The doctor at the center of the abuse, one Anthony Colao with an office on Jersey City's Kennedy Boulevard, died in 2007.)  Only after the news media revealed this pattern, which was either missed or not acted upon by some asleep-at-the-switch prosecutors in Hudson County, did the Attorney General's office take notice feel compelled to take action to avoid embarrassment.
The risk with police officers taking steroids is that these substances affect and impair judgment.  This puts the officers at risk; anything impairing their judgment while they are on duty puts them in mortal danger should they encounter an armed and dangerous person. Steroid abuse -- really, any substance abuse -- also raises the risk that officers will not use the proper amount of restraint and discretion in these and other sensitive situations.  This convergence of circumstances can lead to unintentional police abuse where an officer "just loses control." 

Who pays?  If you live in the New Jersey towns where cops are popping pills...for whatever reason...you do.

Here's why.  Every time a civilian files a police misconduct claim, lawyers get involved -- and that's an expense picked up by the town.  Insurance companies covering the town get involved.  When they make a payout, usually in a settlement, that insurer then raises its premium to cover that payment and to recoup its anticipated profit margin.  Who pays that payout?  Who ultimately pays that higher premium?  You do.  Whether you pay it in the form of higher property taxes, special sales taxes, town user fees (think of parking and traffic tickets, sanitation citations and other traps for the unwary) and reduced services, you bear the burden.

Who paid for the steroids?  It appears many of these steroids were dispensed through bogus (read: illegal) prescriptions from the late, aforementioned Dr. Colao.  One may assume that health insurance companies picked up the tab.  Such prescription abuse contributes to rising health premiums. 

The average person on the street has a role here:  Merely by breathing and being enrolled in the pool of people covered by insurance, you help spread the risk.  The risk -- that is, the risk to the insurer to cover such prescriptions -- is shifted from the users to the non-users, and spread out among the general population of covered policyholders.  This is measuring and predicting risk and spreading it out so that the sick do not bear (and thus do not get crushed by) the proportionate burden of their illness.  This enables people to afford and access health care, but the flip side, of course, is that you pay significant premiums when you are not sick at all.  This is how insurance works. 

Now factor in prescription abuse as one item raising the overall cost among the patient pool.  Who ultimately paid for these officers' steroids?  You did.

The investigative acumen in New Jersey sometimes seems confined to the conventional press -- the newspaper media.  The absence of a true New Jersey tabloid paper is felt in the Garden State.

As with all situations where public monies are converted into benefits for exclusive private use, one wonders if the United States Attorney's Office in Newark has taken notice of these developments. 

One must distinguish the possible criminality in this case against the wave of cases brought by the Justice Department (which has taken a peculiar interest in pain management doctors) over the last several years.  There has been much criticism about the thin line between legitimate pain management or hormone treatments, and outright overprescriptions and prescription abuse which, even if proven, may be more of a questionable medical judgment issue than one of criminal conduct.  One problem (and a danger) is deciding what constitutes illegal activity by the doctors.  However, in the case of the patients of Dr. Colao, any criminality may be in the fraud perpetuated on the health insurance companies -- and by extension, on the municipalities and their taxpayers.  This may implicate various statutes covering health care fraud, and hence should spark the interest of federal authorities.

Eric Dixon is a New York lawyer who handles various strategy and legal issues, including investigations on behalf of non-governmental third parties.  He is available for comment or consultation at 917-696-2442 and at edixon@NYBusinessCounsel.com.

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