Over the last decade, the maker of the potent painkiller OxyContin has compiled a database of hundreds of doctors suspected of recklessly prescribing its pills to addicts and drug dealers, but has done little to alert law enforcement or medical authorities.
Despite its suspicions, Purdue Pharma continued to profit from prescriptions written by these physicians, many of whom were prolific prescribers of OxyContin. The company has sold more than $27 billion worth of the drug since its introduction in 1996.
Purdue has promoted the idea that the country's epidemic of prescription drug deaths was fueled largely by pharmacy robberies, doctor-shopping patients and teens raiding home medicine cabinets. The database suggests that Purdue has long known that physicians also play a significant role in the crisis.
Purdue's database, which contains the names of more than 1,800 doctors, could provide leads for investigators at a time when they are increasingly looking at how reckless prescribing of painkillers contributes to addiction and death.
Purdue has said little about the list since it began identifying doctors in 2002. A company scientist offered a glimpse into the database at a June drug dependency conference in San Diego, noting it was the first time the program had been discussed in public.
In a series of interviews with The Times, Purdue attorney Robin Abrams said the company created the database to steer its sales representatives away from risky doctors. Policing physicians, she said, was not Purdue's responsibility.
"We don't have the ability to take the prescription pad out of their hand," she said.
Abrams said the company had alerted law enforcement or medical regulators to 154 of the prescribers — about 8% of those in its database. The company's tally could not be independently verified.
Asked to provide cases reported to law enforcement, she identified three Southern California physicians implicated in major schemes to funnel OxyContin to addicts and dealers.
One of them, Masoud Bamdad of San Fernando, took in $1.5 million a year prescribing OxyContin and other painkillers to young addicts. He is serving a 25-year prison sentence on a drug dealing conviction. Bamdad was linked by prosecutors to six patient deaths.
Another doctor, Eleanor Santiago, is awaiting sentencing on federal charges that she helped flood Los Angeles' black market with more than 1 million illicit doses of OxyContin. Physician Kevin Gohar was linked to a suspected prescription mill in Reseda that authorities say sold OxyContin prescriptions to addicts across Southern California. Gohar died of a drug overdose in 2011 while a criminal investigation was pending.
Mitchell Katz, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said Purdue has a duty to report all the doctors on the list, not just a select few.
"There is an ethical obligation," said Katz, a critic of what he says is the overuse of painkillers. "Any drug company that has information about physicians potentially engaged in illegal prescribing or prescribing that is endangering people's lives has a responsibility to report it."
Abrams said that some of the doctors in the database may no longer be active prescribers, but she could not provide a specific number.
OxyContin and other prescription painkillers have fueled a surge in drug overdoses, which in 2009 claimed 39,147 lives, surpassing for the first time traffic accidents as a leading cause of preventable deaths. Two years later, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared prescription drug overdoses an epidemic.
Last year, a Times analysis showed that drugs prescribed by doctors played a role in nearly half the prescription overdose deaths in Southern California from 2006 through 2011. Seventy-one doctors prescribed drugs to three or more patients who fatally overdosed. Oxycodone, the active ingredient in OxyContin, was one of the most often cited drugs in the deaths.
Concerned by the mounting death toll, a congressional oversight committee in June called three top federal officials to testify about the government's response to the prescription drug crisis. Louisiana Republican Rep. Bill Cassidy asked why the government wasn't mining prescribing data to target rogue doctors.
"I'm expecting it's going to be a small percent writing a lot of the inappropriate prescriptions," said Cassidy, himself a physician. "What's the challenge in figuring out which doctors are the bad actors?"