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House Panel Broadens Web Pharmacies Probe

A congressional panel investigating Internet pharmacies has broadened the inquiry with letters to three doctors requesting information about their association with various online drug stores.

The letters, released Monday, follow a January letter to a Montclair, N.J., physician who has written more than 100,000 online prescriptions.

Since last summer, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations has been probing issues relating to the marketing and distribution of prescription drugs, especially controlled substances, introduced into U.S. commerce from foreign sources and illicit Web drug stores.

Committee spokesperson Ken Johnson told internetnews.com the panel expects to present its findings during a spring hearing.

"The problem is growing and people are going to end up dead," Johnson said.

Physicians receiving the letters include Dr. Arthur N. Henson II of Miami, Fla.; Dr. Ranvir Ahlawat of Toms River, N.J.; and Dr. Alan Saltzman of Coral Springs, Fla.

According to Johnson, the three physicians were targeted from "information gleaned from various state and federal sources" and after various media outlets reported the physicians' alleged involvement with Web pharmacies.

Ahlawat was named in a Dec. 16 Fort Worth Star Telegram story in which the author of the report purchased the narcotic Ultracet through the Web site vicodon.com-online.us. Ahlawat signed the prescription without seeing the author of the story. In another newspaper article published Jan. 4 by the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Ahwalat is reported to have written a prescription for phentermine, a controlled substance, based solely on an online questionnaire which the author found on the Web site ValuePrescribe.com.

Saltzman was identified in November television report by KLAS in Las Vegas in which a news anchor placed an order for 30 tablets of Xenical and 60 tablets of Celebrex with viamedic.com. The story claims Saltzman prescribed the drugs.

Henson has been associated with the Internet site myprivatedrugstore.com.

Attempts by internetnews.com to contact the three physicians were unsuccessful.

"Because of the public policy concerns about Internet pharmacies and the issues surrounding these websites, the Committee seeks direct information about the operations of websites with which you may have been involved, specifically prescription practices," the Feb 3 letters state, "to determine whether these websites in fact provide a service to consumers safely and in compliance with all state and federal laws, or whether in fact the conduct related to these websites is illustrative of a growing public health threat."

In each letter, the committee requests the three doctors to describe the methods in which they "examined patients before providing prescriptions" and to state the "criteria for determining a valid prescription used by websites with which you have been involved." The committee is also seeking the amount of income each doctor received from the websites.

In January, Dr. Stephen Ancier of Montclair, N.J., became the first physician publicly identified as part of the probe by the committee. Ancier admits to writing more than 100,000 prescriptions over a two-and-half year period for USAPrescription.com and RxNetwork.com.

Those numbers work out to approximately 3,500 per month, 860 per week and, assuming a 40-hour work week, about 21 per hour.

Rep. James Greenwood (R-PA), chairman of the Commerce Oversight subcommittee, wrote to U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Mark McClellan in December to request that his agency look into "enablers of illegal Internet pharmacies and what efforts have been made toward discouraging these enablers from facilitating illicit Internet pharmacies."