AN ACCIDENT VICTIM TREATING HIS PAIN RUNS UP AGAINST
DRUG LAWS THAT LAND HIM IN JAIL -- "60 MINUTES" SUNDAY
The same judicial system that prosecuted Richard Paey for obtaining too much pain medication is now supplying him in prison with more than that amount to ease his tremendous pain. Morley Safer reports on this case, in which an accident victim's quest to medicate his pain ran afoul of rigid drug laws, on 60 MINUTES, Sunday, Jan. 29 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
A long-ago car accident and failed spinal operation put Paey in such severe pain that only escalating amounts of opiate medication could relieve it. "As I got worse, I developed a tolerance also with the medication and so I needed larger doses," says Paey, who describes the pain as burning in his legs. "It's an intense pain that, over time will literally drive you to suicide." Paey, who also suffers from multiple sclerosis, did try suicide at one point.
After moving to Florida with his wife and children, Paey says doctors there were wary of prescribing the amounts of pills he needed as that would draw the attention of law enforcement. So he persuaded his longtime New Jersey doctor to continue prescribing his medication in the high amounts necessary for relief. The doctor agreed to fax and mail prescriptions and sometimes verified them to pharmacists.
Paey's frequent refills did draw attention and, before arresting him for drug trafficking, the Drug Enforcement Agency visited his New Jersey physician, Dr. Stephen Nurkiewicz. When confronted by agents about the number of pills Paey had purchased -- 18,000 in two years -- Nurkiewicz rescinded initial statements of support for his former patient and said Paey was forging prescriptions.
Says Florida State Prosecutor Scott Andringa, "In Richard Paey's room�were the raw materials to make prescriptions. They found a lot of documents that suggested forging prescriptions," he tells Safer. They also found 60 empty bottles of pain relievers, some of which surveillance teams had watched Paey purchase. Andringa says there was no evidence that Paey was selling his drugs, "but it is a reasonable inference from the facts that he was selling them, because no person can consume all these pills.
Paey, confined to a wheelchair, is now serving 25 years in a Florida prison. A jury convicted him of 15 counts of prescription forgery, unlawful possession of a controlled substance, and drug trafficking. He had the choice of entering a guilty plea in exchange for no jail time, but for him, that was no choice, says Paey. "Had I accepted a plea bargain and carried that conviction on my record, I would have found it near impossible to get any medication," he tells Safer, and, "I didn't want to plead guilty to something that I didn't do."
Paey denies selling his medication, saying he took and needed all 18,000 pills. This scenario -- 25 pills a day -- is plausible, says Dr. Russell Portnoy, chairman of the Department of Pain Medicine at New York's Beth Israel Hospital. Once acclimated to a drug, patients can regularly take what would be lethal doses to ordinary people. "It really sounds like society used a mallet to try to handle a problem that required a much more subtle approach," says Portnoy. "If they had taken this man who had engaged in behaviors that were unacceptable and treated it as a medical issue, it seems like this patient would have had better pain control and a functional life instead of being in prison," he says.
Andringa disagrees. "This case is not about pain patients, it's just not. This case is about prescription fraud. We were very reasonable in this case. But once somebody says, 'I'm not going to accept a plea offer however reasonable it is�'"
Paey gets all the medication he needs now, in larger doses than he was taking before, from the state through a pump connected directly to his spine. He is appealing his conviction.