Feel My Pain

A reporter goes after the online drug business and gets wasted

After some cursory Googling, I found www.crdrx.com, an ROP whose stock photos of smiling, white-coated medical professionals and promises of speedy delivery beckoned. I could almost hear the doctors saying, "Dude, check our prices. It's a freaking steal."

And the prices aren't bad: $89 for a telephone consult, $145 for 60 tabs of hydrocodone (generic Vicodin) and $24.50 for two-day delivery (assuming I was approved). Since I have no history of back pain, and no recent doctor visits indicate anything other than hypochondria, I was worried I'd be turned down. But I picked up a copy of my last physical and lab work from my doc, and I faxed them to CRDRX's Las Vegas fax number.

I also had to submit a questionnaire, wherein I had to explain the nature and severity of my pain. I explained that, shortly after losing my insurance in January, I got into a car accident, and my pain has been an earth-shattering eight ever since.

I also had to download and fax in a credit card authorization form. Although I was faxing info to Las Vegas, the company listed on the form was in San Jose, Costa Rica.

"Instituto Medico de Capacitacion y Asesoria Laboral, S.A.," the form said. This roughly translates to Medical Institute for Career Training and Development.

Although my medical records showed little other than I was a living, breathing human being, I was approved for a consult. The following evening, I received a voicemail from a man identifying himself as Dr. Jordan Steinberg. He was calling from New York.

I called Dr. Steinberg the next morning and laid it out: no insurance, car accident, mucho pain, me want hydro. After a few minutes, Dr. Steinberg approved me. He also took the time to warn me that hydro was highly addictive and that if at any time I felt like I was taking the drug more than I needed to, there was no shame in seeking help. If that happens, he said, I should call him or a local doc.

Two days later, after taking a sick day, I returned to work to find a UPS package from Florida on my chair. Inside was my hydro, compliments of Liddy's Pharmacy in Lakeland, Florida. The prescribing doctor was some guy named Frantz Achille.

Medical boards in New York and Florida showed no trace of a Jordan Steinberg, but Achille turned up in the Sunshine State. Later, I left a voicemail for Dr. Steinberg explaining who I was. In his subsequent voicemail to me, he explained that he was a medical resident with a heavy school loan to repay. While he wasn't licensed to prescribe, he relayed all his consultation notes to Dr. Achille for final say.

Now that I had made a successful buy, I called CRDRX's customer service line, explained the situation and asked to speak to a representative. The guy who answered the phone (who said he was in Costa Rica) said he'd have company president George Gonzales of Las Vegas call me. He wouldn't release Gonzales's number.

I soon received a call from a man identifying himself as George Gonzales. I told him that, based on my experience, it appeared that anyone with even a minimal medical record could buy narcotics from his site.

Gonzales wouldn't tell me the name of his company (it's not the Web site URL), but he assured me he wasn't doing anything illegal. A search with the secretary of state's office in Nevada found no record of George Gonzales operating a pharmaceutical company or any company related to prescription drugs in that state.

Gonzales said if anyone broke the law, it was me.

"Do we depend more on the veracity, of the truthfulness, of the individual patient or client?" he asked. "Yes, we do. Hopefully, they'll send us legitimate records, and if the records looked altered in any way, shape or form, we do not offer the prescription."

He said company safeguards eliminated about 70 percent of fraudulent shoppers.

Many of the laws regulating prescription drugs come down to one thing: There must be a valid doctor-patient relationship. The problem is, federal and state laws stop just short of providing a clear definition. As far as Gonzales is concerned, the second a physician gives advice to a person, a valid relationship is born.

For that matter, he said, it's just as easy for someone to hoodwink doctors in person, collecting as many scrips for as many drugs as they want.

And as for the Costa Rica connection? Gonzales assured me that was just a third-party billing outfit. His company, he said, is based in Las Vegas.

Although Gonzales agreed to answer follow-up questions, CRDRX.com later e-mailed that I would be hearing from its lawyers.

I then got Liddy's Pharmacy owner Bruce Liddy on the phone. Like Gonzales, he assured me that what he was doing was not only legal but helpful to chronic pain sufferers ignored by local doctors.

Liddy had felt the government squeeze before. His wife, Melinda, used to run a storefront in the same city called Discount Medicine of Canada. It was one of a handful of Canadian-themed storefronts in Florida where customers could look through catalogs of meds available from Canadian pharmacies. The Florida Department of Health didn't like the smell, so it ran a sting in 2004 and won a permanent injunction in 2005 to close the shop. Melinda then went to work at her husband's pharmacy.

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