A deluge of illicit prescription drugs could hit the streets if a state agency “decimates” its enforcement bureau via layoffs, past and present investigators there warn.
“As far as filtering down to the streets, it's going to greatly increase the prescription drug and controlled substance problem,” said Kenneth W. Post, the former director of the state Department of Health's Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement. “It's beyond a problem. ‘Problem' is a mild word for what's going on.”
Three out of four investigators in the 14-county region that includes Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties received the layoff notices. Of 17 investigators statewide, 11 were notified of layoffs, effective Oct. 19. The Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement investigates prescription-drug abuses among health care professionals. The Albany Times-Union first reported the concerns.
The layoffs come amid an ongoing dispute between the state and the Public Employees Federation, a 56,000-member union that is facing 3,496 layoffs after it rejected, in a membership vote, a contract with the state. The contract would have frozen pay and increased the amount that the professional, scientific and technical workers pay toward health insurance, but also would have prevented layoffs.
The contract dispute, former and current investigators allege, is merely a smokescreen for the Department of Health to get rid of a group that it didn't want around anyway.
Not so, say officials at the Department of Health.
“The changes in the Bureau reflect the shift of enforcement from a focus on street level crime, which is appropriately handled by law enforcement, to a clear emphasis on the diversion of prescription drug in the health care delivery system and interventions to reduce prescription drug addiction and abuse,” said spokesman Jeffrey R. Gordon in an email.
In a follow-up email, Mr. Gordon said: “These changes will not in any way impact the enforcement of the law.”
But local authorities and state police aren't capable of carrying out those investigations, Mr. Post said. Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement investigators can access health records without a subpoena, unlike state police.
“The cases are complicated,” Mr. Post said. “It really requires an expertise in conducting this type of investigation.”
He also said he believes that investigations being carried out by Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli and Inspector General Ellen N. Biben into whether officials at the BNE misused funds or launched investigations into employees for personal reasons are the real reason for the layoffs.
“It's retaliation,” said Mr. Post, who was the director from 2008 to 2010. “They obviously were trying to strike on an opportunity to make these cuts under the guise of targeted layoffs directed by the governor ... It was clear to me that it was more about retribution and retaliation.”
Partly because of that, some investigators said they are considering a whistle-blower lawsuit, which protects workers from being fired because they report malfeasance. They spoke to the Times on condition of anonymity because they've been instructed not to speak publicly on the matter and fear retribution.
Harold Stone was responsible for the investigation of Ramon E. Ravelo, a former Canton-Potsdam Hospital psychiatrist who was accused of overprescribing medications and falsifying patient records. Dr. Ravelo's case is still pending.
Mr. Stone could not be reached for comment; at least some PEF employees have been instructed not to speak with the media.
His wife, Jennifer L. Stone, is writing letters to the media and to state officials to highlight the matter.
Her husband has 80 ongoing cases, she said, a number echoed by other BNE investigators and Mr. Post.
If three of the four investigators are let go, the one remaining investigator will have 400 cases, Mr. Post said. But it's unlikely to stay that way, he said.
“What the Department of Health will do is shut down, close out a large number of those cases just to give the false appearance that the caseload is not that high,” Mr. Post said.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and PEF officials have until Oct. 19 to iron out a new contract before the layoffs take place. Mr. Cuomo said he is open to changing the contract that was rejected in a membership vote last week, as long as it doesn't cost the state any more money.