The family of a Meriden man who died in 2013 at age 56 is suing Derby nurse practitioner Heather Alfonso and the pain clinic where she worked, alleging that her rampant overprescribing of narcotics contributed to his death.
Joseph Torchia’s wife and son claim in a lawsuit filed in Waterbury Superior Court that Alfonso, who was recently charged by federal prosecutors with accepting kickbacks from a drug company, prescribed “unlawfully high” doses of narcotics to Torchia for more than a year, ignoring signs that he was suffering from liver cirrhosis, gallbladder disease, internal bleeding and narcotics’ dependency.
The suit alleges that Alfonso’s reckless prescribing weakened Torchia’s medical condition, so that his ability to recover from gallbladder surgery on Jan. 14, 2013, was compromised. He died three weeks after that surgery.
The lawsuit also names as defendants the Comprehensive Pain & Headache Treatment Centers, LLC, where Alfonso worked; the doctor who performed the surgery and his medical practice; and two emergency room physicians who treated Torchia after the surgery.
Attorney James Biondo of Stamford, who is representing Alfonso, said that while it is early in the case, “we expect to file a responsive pleading denying all allegations of improper medical care.” Attorneys for the pain center could not be reached.
Alfonso, 42, of Middlebury, pleaded guilty last month to receiving $83,000 in kickbacks from January 2013 until March 2015 from a drug company in exchange for prescribing a powerful narcotic used to treat cancer pain. The charge of receiving kickbacks in relation to a federal healthcare program carries a maximum term of imprisonment of five years and a fine of up to $250,000. She will be sentenced later this year.
C-HIT stories earlier this year identified Alfonso as the state’s highest prescriber of Schedule II narcotics –potent drugs with a high potential for addiction and abuse — in the federal Medicare program. She has since surrendered her licenses to prescribe and has left the Derby pain center. Neither she nor Dr. Mark Thimineur, head of the pain center, has returned messages seeking comment.
Court records, separate from the lawsuit, show Alfonso filed for personal bankruptcy in 2009, claiming assets of $424,600, including a house in Middlebury, and liabilities exceeding $525,000, including $69,000 in credit card debt. She began her job as an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) at the pain center sometime after that.
The lawsuit makes mention of the kickback allegations, saying that Alfonso took “bribes” in exchange for prescribing “dangerous, potentially deadly” drugs to patients. The federal charges against her involve a potent painkiller called Subsys, which is supposed to be used only for cancer patients, but which Alfonso prescribed to non-cancer patients.
Attorney Tracey Hardman of Middletown, who is representing the Torchia family, said Joseph Torchia suffered from diabetes-related orthopedic and back pain, but was given multiple high-dose prescriptions for narcotics better suited for “a cancer patient who needed palliative care.”
Alfonso “just piled on the narcotics, at increasing doses, and never did any kind of testing or referrals to specialists, as far as we can see from the records,” Hardman said. “For his level of pain, the prescribing was entirely disproportional . . . These (medication) levels are documented to increase internal bleeding and problems with the liver.”
Mathew Torchia, Joseph’s son, said he became suspicious of the pain center and the nurse his father called “Heather” after his father died and he found dozens of pill bottles in his father’s house. He said his father was an upbeat, outgoing man who had been disabled by diabetes after working as an EMT and a real estate agent. The elder Torchia collected coins and called Bingo games at the complex where he lived with his wife of 36 years, Shawn.
“He was such a good man – he didn’t deserve to be treated like this, like a toy,” said Mathew, 34. “He was the kind of guy who would just trust whatever his doctors said, that they knew best.”
When he discovered all the bottles of narcotics, Mathew said, “I knew something was wrong. I thought, ‘I can’t even believe a human being could survive this.’”
Court records include a statement from a nurse practitioner who reviewed Joseph Torchia’s prescription records. The nurse concluded that “the level of medications that Heather Alfonso prescribed to this patient, including but not limited to multiple controlled substances (as many as 3-4 at a time)…was excessive. It was particularly egregious to continue prescribing medications that are listed in this case once Mr. Torchia was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis” in 2012.
The lawsuit alleges that the pain center failed to ensure that its employees were following proper procedures in administering medications, and that Thimineur “negligently supervised, retained and hired Alfonso.”
The suit also charges Dr. Aurangzeb Ali, a surgeon at Surgical Associates of Meriden, with malpractice for failing to take proper care of Torchia before, during and after the gallbladder surgery. In addition, it alleges that emergency room physicians failed to provide proper care to Torchia when he sought help Jan. 18 and was sent home with an oral antibiotic. He returned to the hospital Jan. 25 with sepsis, a complication of an infection, and remained there until he died.
Attorney Donna R. Zito of Rocky Hill, representing Ali and Surgical Associates, said her clients “categorically deny all allegations of negligence or wrongdoing asserted by the plaintiffs” and would prove their case in court.