Paper: N.J. Doctor Supplied Steroids To Police

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In a series of investigative stories, The Star-Ledger newspaper in New Jersey reports that at least 248 officers and firefighters obtained steroids, human growth hormone and other testosterone-boosting drugs, with prescriptions written by one doctor. And in many cases, those prescriptions were paid for through their government health plans. NPR's Robert Siegel talks to Amy Brittain, one of the authors of the reports.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Stories about anabolic steroids and human growth hormone tend to be about male athletes who are violating some rule of competition and whose big muscles are matched by big incomes to pay for their drugs. Well, this story is different. And it's about people we're much more likely to encounter.

The Star Ledger newspaper in New Jersey reports on another group with questionable prescriptions for those drugs, prescriptions that are paid for by New Jersey taxpayers. They are police and firefighters.

And reporter Amy Brittain and her colleague Mark Mahler figure that the drug use of those firefighters and police have cost the taxpayers millions of dollars. Amy Brittain joins us from Newark. Welcome to the program.

Ms. AMY BRITTAIN (Reporter, The Star Ledger): Thank you.

SIEGEL: Your story on Monday began with the case of a Jersey City police officer, Victor Vargas, buying a human growth hormone, on prescription. Who paid for it?

Ms. BRITTAIN: In this case, this city of Jersey City did. He charged it to his prescription plan.

SIEGEL: He had a co-pay that he had to pay. You say it's $8.

Ms. BRITTAIN: Yes. Jersey City picked up the rest of the tab, which was for over a thousand dollars.

SIEGEL: Over a thousand dollars?

Ms. BRITTAIN: Yes, that's correct.

SIEGEL: How unusual was this? How many officers in New Jersey have you been able to find so far who had prescriptions of that sort?

Ms. BRITTAIN: In our reporting, we found a total of 248 police officers, corrections officers, firefighters who filled prescriptions for anabolic steroids, and/or other hormones through a Jersey City physician by the name of Joseph Colao. And those drugs were filled through a pharmacy in Brooklyn and shipped to the officers' homes in New Jersey, in most cases.

SIEGEL: There are medical conditions for which someone might be prescribed human growth hormone or anabolic steroids. How rare or how common are those conditions?

Ms. BRITTAIN: Well, first of all, you have to separate the two classes of drugs. I'll start with anabolic steroids, particularly testosterone. We spoke with an endocrinologist who estimated that for men in their mid-30s - and we found in this case, of the number of officers we had, the median age was 35. So for an age like 35, approximately two percent would have a bona fide testosterone deficiency.

For growth hormone, which is one of the most tightly regulated substances in the United States, there's only a handful of legitimate medical conditions for which a doctor could legally prescribe the substance. The main medical condition in that case would be adult onset growth hormone deficiency, which is estimated to affect approximately one out of every 100,000 adults annually in the United States.

SIEGEL: So the human growth hormone prescriptions, it's remarkable that there should be more than a handful of them, among one subset of men in New Jersey.

Ms. BRITTAIN: Correct. I mean, I spoke with one endocrinologist who said that if you lined up 100,000 police officers, there should be one that steps forward who would require growth hormone to be prescribed to him.

SIEGEL: As opposed to dozens who had prescriptions actually for this.

Ms. BRITTAIN: Correct. Correct.

SIEGEL: Much of this came out after the death of Dr. Colao.

Ms. BRITTAIN: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Did Dr. Colao have a legitimate medical practice or was he entirely in the business of prescribing drugs? What was his story?

Ms. BRITTAIN: Dr. Colao started as a pain management physician, someone who specialized in treating patients with physical therapy needs, elderly patients, patients who are suffering. Somewhere along the way he became really fascinated with anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, and starting to prescribe these substances. And he really did transform his practice. His life itself changed whenever he started getting involved in this.

And starting around, we estimate around 2005, 2006, his practice just started booming. And it continued to do so until his death in the middle of 2007.

SIEGEL: He had triple bypass surgery before this but appears from your pictures to be much younger after the operation, looked younger than before it. Did he die of a heart attack?

Ms. BRITTAIN: He died at age 45 of hardening of the arteries. They did a toxicology report and that was the finding. I can tell you from our reporting we have learned that hardening of the arteries is certainly a side effect from anabolic steroid usage.

If you look at the photos that we ran in the paper, you can certainly see the transformation in Dr. Colao. His face became much more defined. His jaw line, you can tell. And that's kind of known as a hallmark sign of HGH usage, is when you see that sort of really large jaw. They call it HGH jaw. And you can really see that in the before and after photos of Dr. Colao.

SIEGEL: You report that some states, many states, have a system of monitoring prescriptions, but not New Jersey. Is that likely to change after your series in the Star Ledger?

Ms. BRITTAIN: Well, we reported today that New Jersey actually has a grant for the system. That money has been sitting around for a couple of years. We spoke with some lawmakers who have called that this money be put to use as soon as possible, and those plans could go into action pretty soon.

SIEGEL: Reporter Amy Brittain, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. BRITTAIN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's Amy Brittain of the Star Ledger in New Jersey.

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