A mid-Michigan doctor is expected to be arraigned today in Tuscola County after being taken into custody Wednesday for allegedly running a criminal enterprise that included so-called “pill-mills” in Caro, Saginaw and Mount Pleasant.
Tuscola County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Reene said Tuesday that he authorized a seven-count felony warrant for the arrest of Dr. Joseph Edwin Oesterling.
The charges were running a criminal enterprise, maintaining a drug building and five counts of delivery of a controlled substance.
If convicted, Oesterling faces up to 20 years in prison.
Reene said the charges resulted from a seven-month investigation conducted by the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Tactical Diversion Squad and the Thumb Narcotics Unit into alleged over-prescribing practices at Osterling’s clinics in Caro, Saginaw, and Mount Pleasant.
Reene said Oesterling specializes in urology and “the allegations include the massive over-prescribing of such substances as hydrocodone (commonly branded as Norco), methadone, amphetamines, phentermine, oxycodone, and alprazolam (commonly branded as Xanax).”
“Stemming the trafficking of prescription controlled substances has become a priority for law enforcement across the state of Michigan, with action being taken routinely by the state of Michigan and the attorney general to curb the practices of these so-called ‘pill mills,'” Reene said in a statement Tuesday.
Reene said the charges are connected to a raid conducted in late October by the DEA and Thumb Narcotics Unit.
The raid sites and Oesterling were previously unidentified, but Reene confirmed Tuesday they were connected to Oesterling and his practices. Police seized multiple electronic records, controlled substances, and financial records.
In addition to the resulting criminal charges, Tuscola County prosecutors began civil forfeiture proceedings, via summons and complaint, concerning multiple items of personal and real property that were previously seized.
During a Tuscola County Circuit Court hearing this fall about authorities’ seizure of vehicles and personal property (and freezing of assets of Oesterling and others potentially involved), Saginaw defense lawyer Victor J. Mastromarco Jr. told the court that investigators have “turned these people’s lives upside down.”
But Tuscola County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Eric F. Wanink told Circuit Judge Amy Grace Gierhart that the medical offices, including one in Caro, prescribed a total of “some 330,000 dosage units of Norco, a (Schedule II) controlled substance, within a 16-month period.”
“A lot of hospitals” don’t even prescribe that much of the painkiller Norco in the same time period, Wanink told the judge.
In 2014, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) moved certain hydrocodone combination products — including Norco — from Schedule III to the more restrictive Schedule II.
The Controlled Substances Act places substances with the highest potential for harm and abuse in Schedule II. Hydrocodone combination products, or HCPs, are drugs containing both hydrocodone — which in itself is a Schedule II drug — and specified amounts of other substances, such as acetaminophen or aspirin, according to the DEA.
“Almost seven million Americans abuse controlled-substance prescription medications, including opioid painkillers, resulting in 22,134 Americans dying in 2011 from overdoses of prescription medications, including 16,651 from narcotic painkillers,” DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart stated in a 2014 press release.
The 2014 DEA action “recognizes that these products are some of the most addictive and potentially dangerous prescription medications available,” stated Leonhart.
It was announced at the time of the raids in October that law enforcement became aware of Oesterling’s alleged activity through pharmacists in Tuscola County who believed over-prescribing was taking place.
In Tuscola County, Oesterling practiced at Caro Medical Group, 206 Montague Ave., in Caro, at the intersection of Joy and Montague streets across from the Caro Police Department.
No one was at the office on Tuesday and a pre-recorded phone message at the business says it is closed permanently.
Caro Medical Group, formerly Caro Family Physicians P.C., introduced Oesterling to the community via a Sept. 12, 2014 Facebook post.
“Our Caro office is now offering state-of-the-art urological services! Meet one of the co-directors of (Midwest Prostate and Urological Institute),” the post stated.
“Dr. Oesterling is a world-renown urologist with more than 30 years of clinical and research experience. He trained at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD, before joining the staff at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN,” the post reads.
“After serving as the Chairman of Urology at the University of Michigan for five years, he came to the Saginaw community and joined a practice with Dr. Joseph Aquilina, in 1998.
“Dr. Oesterling is the urologist, who discovered the prostate cancer tumor marker, prostate-specific antigen (PSA) and has conducted extensive research in defining the role of PSA in the diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer.
“He has lectured at numerous universities across the United States and has traveled to more than 75 countries teaching urologists about the latest advancements in the diagnosis and management of diseases related to the urinary tract.
“Without question, he brings a wealth of urologic knowledge to the Caro Family Physicians P.C. group,” the Facebook post stated.
The post made no mention of Oesterling’s past legal wranglings — a 1997 case involving expense-account fraud that cost him his job at U-M (through resignation) and a separate case from 2005 involving alleged misconduct charges.
Reene said Tuesday the state of Michigan has suspended Oesterling’s license to practice medicine pending a formal administrative hearing.
Bond has not yet been set, nor has a date for Oesterling’s first appearance in court relating to the charges.
“The Tuscola County Prosecutor’s Office would like to commend the dedication of the DEA Tactical Diversion Squad of Detroit, Michigan and the Thumb Narcotics Unit who have worked tirelessly to bring the cases to this point,” Reene said.
Tom Gilchrist contributed to this report.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at email@example.com