A well-known urologist accused of running several “pill-mills” in mid-Michigan routinely wrote prescriptions for pain medications to patients without testing to determine the causes of their medical problems, a former employee said Thursday.
“That was his biggest downfall,” said Laura Rock, 31, of Tuscola County’s Almer Township, about what she alleged was Dr. Joseph E. Oesterling’s refusal to arrange tests on patients receiving pain pills from the doctor.
Rock said she was a receptionist and medical assistant at the Caro Medical Group, 206 Montague Ave. in Caro, where Oesterling saw patients. The medical clinic, now closed and for sale, operated across the street from the Caro Police Department.
Oesterling, 60, of Ann Arbor, waived his right to a preliminary hearing Thursday before Tuscola County District Court Judge Kim David Glaspie, who ordered the case bound over to Tuscola County Circuit Court, where Oesterling could stand trial on the charges.
Prosecutors charge him with running a criminal enterprise, maintaining a drug building and with five counts of delivery of a controlled substance. If convicted of the charges, he faces up to 20 years in prison.
“One woman begged and begged for some more testing because she did not feel right, but (Oesterling) just kept pushing and pushing pills, without having any proof of what was wrong with her,” Rock told The Advertiser. “We got into multiple arguments about it, but (Oesterling) just said (diagnostic tests) ‘are more work for me and you.’”
Oesterling “just did not care — it was a money game,” said Rock, noting customers without health insurance would pay cash on their visits, when Oesterling would prescribe pain medications.
“Basically, all the cash patients just wanted their pills, and they didn’t care about assessments,” Rock said.
Tuscola County Prosecutor Mark E. Reene has said the allegations against Oesterling “include the massive over-prescribing of such substances as hydrocodone (commonly branded as Norco), methadone, amphetamines, phentermine, oxycodone and alprazolam (commonly branded as Xanax).”
Attorneys for Oesterling have denied the allegations. Saginaw attorney Alan A. Crawford, representing Oesterling at the doctor’s arraignment on the charges in December, said Oesterling is angry about the charges, adding they’re “tarnishing his name and tarnishing his reputation.”
Saginaw lawyer Victor J. Mastromarco Jr., also present at Oesterling’s arraignment, calls the charges by Tuscola County prosecutors “a travesty.”
Reene has 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 Oesterling’s clinics in Caro, Saginaw and Mount Pleasant.
Information obtained in Caro Police Chief Brian V. Newcomb’s annual report to the Caro Village Council on Monday noted that Caro Patrolman Michael Mitin “received information from informants” in January of 2016 that Oesterling “was dealing with fraudulent prescriptions and was aided by assistants within his office.”
Newcomb’s annual report states the original complaint came from Millington Police Chief Steve Roggentine, who “had received a complaint of prescription fraud that appeared to originate out of Caro.” Caro Police Department officers contacted a number of people “who confirmed that Dr. (Oesterling) was providing prescription narcotics to multiple patients for cash,” according to the annual report.
The assistance of the Thumb Narcotics Unit as well as the federal Drug Enforcement Administration was requested, and “a complex and lengthy investigation ensued including 24-hour surveillance,” Newcomb wrote in the annual report.
Officers searched locations in Ann Arbor, Caro, Midland, Saginaw and Mount Pleasant as part of the investigation, and seized items, according to the annual report. “Forfeiture of offices, residences, vehicles, etc. has resulted in approximately 6 million dollars in assets,” Newcomb wrote.
Oesterling, however, has fought in recent weeks in Tuscola County Circuit Court for return of seized items — in proceedings where records have been made non-public.
Prosecutors have listed about 58 witnesses who can be called at trial in the case against Oesterling.
The doctor didn’t speak in response to a reporter’s question about the charges against him Thursday morning as Oesterling left the courthouse following the hearing. His attorney, Troy lawyer Robert J. Andretz, said “We look forward to our opportunity to have our day in court, and we believe that that’s the best forum to make a statement.”
Rock was one of about 19 witnesses prosecutors planned to call to testify at the preliminary exam against Oesterling, hailed by a former attorney as saving “millions of men’s lives from prostate cancer.”
Caro Medical Group, formerly Caro Family Physicians P.C., introduced Oesterling to the community via a Sept. 12, 2014 Facebook post, calling him “a world-renown urologist with more than 30 years of clinical and research experience.”
Oesterling, working at the Mayo Clinic, wrote a 1991 article in “The Journal of Urology.” The article included his “critical assessment” of the prostate specific antigen, or PSA, which he called the most useful tumor marker for cancer of the prostate gland.
Oesterling “has saved millions of men’s lives from prostate cancer,” Mastromarco said in December.
Oesterling later became chief of urology at the University of Michigan Medical Center but resigned from his university job. He pleaded no contest to a felony charge after the university stated it uncovered double- and triple-billing for the cost of trips by the doctor.
Rock said she worked at the Caro clinic with Oesterling for more than a year, noting he would see patients there on the first and third Mondays of the month, and every Thursday.
Rock said the clinic operated from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Thursdays, seeing scores of patients in one day.
“On Thursdays there would be 60 patients a day showing up,” Rock said. “They didn’t care. They just wanted their pills.”
No trial date has been set in circuit court for Oesterling, who remains free after posting a $100,000 bond. Judge Glaspie on Thursday modified Oesterling’s bond to allow Oesterling to leave the state and visit the his mother in Indiana on March 10-12. Tuscola County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Eric F. Wanink didn’t object to the Indiana trip as long as Oesterling indicated the length of the trip.
Oesterling has his supporters around Tuscola County. Russell Ackerman, 81, of Gilford Township, said he has been a patient of the urologist for about 18 years, and praised the urologist.
“He’d go out of his way to help you,” said Ackerman, noting that Oesterling would make house calls to people who couldn’t leave their homes.
“How many doctors would do that?” Ackerman said.
Ackerman said Oesterling never actually came to Ackerman’s home on a doctor visit, but noted Oesterling “went to my neighbor’s place different times.”
Ackerman said Oesterling said he regrets coming to practice at the Caro Medical Group clinic.
“He told me it was a big mistake,” Ackerman said. “He said he should never have gone there. He got involved with people … who did him wrong and he had no idea what was going on.”
Ackerman said Oesterling would strive to reduce patients’ reliance on powerful pain medications.
“He said these doctors would have patients on a lot stronger pain medicine, and he’d take (patients) off those and put them on Norco, and Norco isn’t that strong,” Ackerman said. “He didn’t even prescribe Norco to me. I got that from (another doctor).”
Ackerman credits Oesterling with restoring an old barn along Wadsworth Road in Saginaw County’s Blumfield Township, just west of the village of Reese.
“It was just an old farm barn, but he just loved barns and he fixed it up,” Ackerman said.
Wanink has said Oesterling has “considerable resources,” and owns 49 percent of the Birch Run Expo Center, an apartment complex in Reese and “millions of dollars worth of John Deere toys and collectibles.”
Tom Gilchrist is a reporter for The Advertiser and can be reached at [email protected]