Edward J. Schwartz building
Edward J. Schwartz federal office building in downtown San Diego. Photo via casd.uscourts.gov

A San Diego doctor who illegally distributed thousands of hydrocodone pills by giving out fake prescriptions with the names of dead or incarcerated patients pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to an opioid distribution charge.

Egisto Salerno, 75, whose practice was located on El Cajon Boulevard in the College Area of San Diego, is one of seven defendants to plead guilty in what prosecutors describe as a “pill mill” scheme to sell medications in San Diego, as well as smuggle them into Mexico.

The plea agreement covers criminal activity that occurred between November 2014 and February 2018, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors say recruiters brought fake patients — mostly homeless people — into Salerno’s office, where he would write them hydrocodone prescriptions. Once they received their pills at a pharmacy, money was paid to the “patients,” who gave their pills to the recruiters.

Salerno used one deceased patient’s name to fill out multiple prescriptions more than a year after the patient died, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Some of his employees who were not physicians were also allowed to fill out prescriptions, prosecutors said.

Undercover agents also visited Salerno’s office on several occasions, during which they were prescribed pills despite minimal examination by Salerno, according to court documents.

On one occasion, prosecutors said Salerno used an undercover agent’s fake name to write a prescription, despite the agent not visiting Salerno’s office on the date marked on the agent’s medical chart.

“Because of pill mills operated by doctors like Egisto Salerno, our country has been devastated by the negative effects of prescription pain medication,” DEA Special Agent in Charge John W. Callery said.

Salerno is slated to be sentenced on May 11, while his co-defendants await sentencing on various dates across February and April.

— City News Service