STRONG AT ANY COST

This three-part series by Mark Mueller and Amy Brittain showed how hundreds of New Jersey police officers and firefighters obtained illegally prescribed steroids and human growth hormone from a Jersey City doctor. The stories resulted in changes to state law, saved millions in tax dollars and pushed forward implementation of a statewide prescription drug monitoring system. Winner of a George Polk Award for investigative reporting.

 

PART 1: PRESCRIPTION FOR DANGER

(Dec. 12, 2010) (PDF)

On a rainy August morning in 2007, the news rippled through New Jersey’s law enforcement ranks, officer to officer, department to department.

Joseph Colao was dead.

The 45-year-old physician had collapsed in his Jersey City apartment, the victim of heart failure.

Within hours, officers were calling the Hudson County public safety complex.

“Is it true?” they asked, recalled Detective Sgt. Ken Kolich, who’d drawn the routine assignment to look into the death. “Did Dr. Colao die?”

Kolich didn’t suspect foul play, but he found it odd — and a little disturbing — that so many officers were interested in the fate of a man with no official ties to any police agency.

Today, it’s clear Colao was more than just a doctor, friend or confidant to many of the officers.

He was their supplier.

Joseph Colao
Joseph Colao

A seven-month Star-Ledger investigation drawing on prescription records, court documents and detailed interviews with the physician’s employees shows Colao ran a thriving illegal drug enterprise that supplied anabolic steroids and human growth hormone to hundreds of law enforcement officers and firefighters throughout New Jersey.

From a seemingly above-board practice in Jersey City, Colao frequently broke the law and his own oath by faking medical diagnoses to justify his prescriptions for the drugs, the investigation shows.

Many of the officers and firefighters willingly took part in the ruse, finding Colao provided an easy way to obtain tightly regulated substances that are illegal without a valid prescription, the investigation found.

Others were persuaded by the physician’s polished sales pitch, one that glossed over the risks and legal realities, the newspaper found. A small percentage may have legitimately needed the drugs to treat uncommon medical conditions.

In most cases, if not all, they used their government health plans to pay for the substances. Evidence gathered by The Star-Ledger suggests the total cost to taxpayers reaches into the millions of dollars.

In just over a year, records show, at least 248 officers and firefighters from 53 agencies used Colao’s fraudulent practice to obtain muscle-building drugs, some of which have been linked to increased aggression, confusion and reckless behavior. (More)

RELATED PART ONE COVERAGE

 Legal cases linked to police who received steroids

PART 2: BULKING UP AT THE PUBLIC’S EXPENSE 

(Dec. 13, 2010) (PDF)

On Jan. 31, 2007, Jersey City police officer Victor Vargas filled a prescription for Norditropin, a brand of human growth hormone. He was billed $8, the co-pay set by his government health plan.

Taxpayers picked up the remaining $1,076.

Through August of that year, Vargas, then 30, filled at least five more prescriptions for growth hormone, along with prescriptions for testosterone, an anabolic steroid, and HCG, a drug that boosts production of testosterone in the body, according to legal documents related to an ongoing brutality lawsuit against Vargas and other officers.

In all, the officer paid $96 for the three substances in those eight months. The cost to the public: $7,013.

Vargas’ purchases provide a window into the enormous financial burden borne by taxpayers under a wink-and-nod arrangement between a Jersey City doctor, Joseph Colao, and his loyal patients in law enforcement agencies and fire departments across New Jersey.

A Star-Ledger investigation has found that at least 248 officers and firefighters obtained steroids, growth hormone and other testosterone-boosting drugs from Colao before his death in August 2007. In addition, the newspaper found Colao often falsely diagnosed his patients with hormone deficiencies to justify his prescriptions, a violation of the law and medical ethics.

For the officers and firefighters in the physician’s practice, the drugs came cheap.

Like Vargas, they used their government benefits to pay for the substances in most, if not all, cases. A Star-Ledger analysis suggests the total cost to taxpayers runs into the millions of dollars, driven primarily by Colao’s willingness to so widely prescribe human growth hormone, one of the most tightly regulated drugs in the nation. (More)

RELATED PART TWO COVERAGE

➽ Ex-Harrison firefighter on disability works full-time for N.C. fire department

➽ Lawmaker calls for attorney general to investigate steroid, HGH use by law enforcement

PART 3: A RISKY ROAD TO THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH

(Dec. 14, 2010) (PDF)

Henry Balzani, 63, boasts he can leg-press 720 pounds. He’s got the photo on his cell phone to prove it.

He says he has the energy and mental acuity of a man in his 20s. In just one year, he adds, he shed 30 pounds of fat and put on 10 pounds of muscle.

Balzani, a gynecologist, credits his physical turnaround to diet, exercise, vitamin supplementation and the restorative power of hormones.

He takes testosterone, human growth hormone and TA-65, an unregulated substance that fights the aging process at the chromosomal level, its manufacturers claim.

Impressed with the results and with his own research, Balzani and a partner last fall opened Total Life Rejuvenation, a Clifton anti-aging clinic that specializes in hormone replacement therapy, a treatment that boosts the body’s naturally declining hormones to youthful levels.

“There’s a big movement for this,” Balzani said, citing testosterone advertisements, celebrity endorsements and the fictional Samantha Jones, the libidinous huntress who plugs hormones in this year’s “Sex and the City 2.” “It’s becoming mainstream.”

By all accounts, the anti-aging business is booming, a trend fed by an eager public’s timeless thirst for elixirs and pills to flatten bellies, increase vigor and improve sexual potency.

And with every new patient and every new prescription, the medical establishment grows more alarmed.

Critics say anti-aging practitioners, operating in a gray area of both medicine and the law, too often cross the line by peddling powerful and potentially dangerous substances on the basis of medically faulty diagnoses.

“It’s a total ruse,” said Thomas Perls, an associate professor of medicine and geriatrics at Boston University Medical School and one of the anti-aging movement’s more outspoken foes.

“The population generally equates hormones with youth, and therefore for gullible or narcissistic individuals, it becomes an easy sell,” Perls said. “Any claims that this stuff works for anti-aging is absolute nonsense. It’s quackery.”

RELATED PART 3 COVERAGE

➽ State to investigate illegal steroid use by law enforcement officers (Dec. 15, 2010)

➽ State suspends disability benefits for ex-Harrison firefighter (Dec. 15, 2010)

ADDITIONAL FOLLOW-UP COVERAGE

➽ Heads of largest N.J. police unions support random steroid testing for officers (Dec. 19, 2010)

➽ Magazine for N.J. law enforcement contains ads for anabolic steroid providers (Dec. 23, 2010)

➽ Two bills address steroid use among law enforcement officers, firefighters (Jan. 10, 2011)

➽ Pension board members denounce former Harrison firefighter as cheat, fraud (Jan. 11, 2011)

➽ Assembly panel approves stricter rules on growth hormone use (Feb. 14, 2011)

➽ Star-Ledger series on steroid use wins George Polk Award (Feb. 22, 2011)

➽ Assembly approves bill aimed at restricting abuse of human growth hormone (March 14, 2011)

➽ N.J. enacts safeguards in prescription plan to combat steroid abuse by police, firefighters (March 20, 2011)

➽ Federal prosecutors seek names of cops, firefighters who took steroids from Jersey City doctor (May 8, 2011)

➽ Attorney general unveils reforms to stop steroid abuse by law enforcement officers (July 7, 2011)

➽ Sheriff’s officer suspended after arrest for alleged harassment, threats (Nov. 24, 2011)


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