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ROME (AP) — Italian authorities on Thursday suspended a doctor and three pharmacists in an investigation of the suspected fraudulent prescription of oxycodone, a potentially addictive painkiller.

In allegations that appear to have similarities to the U.S. opioid addiction epidemic, a physician in the southern city of Cosenza is suspected of writing unjustified prescriptions demanded by national health service patients, who then illicitly sold many of the pills on the street to fellow addicts.

"The doctor prescribed a very high number of these pills, thousands and thousands of Oxycontin," said Cosenza Prosecutor Mario Spagnuolo, referring to the brand name of a oxycodone-based painkiller.

OxyContin and other prescription pain medicines were a factor in a record 48,000 deaths across the United States in 2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Associated Press reported earlier this year that the overseas arm of Purdue Pharma and other major manufacturers of painkillers were implicated in a criminal probe based in Parma, Italy. There prosecutors contend that the companies, with the aid of an unscrupulous pain-expert doctor, underplayed the addiction risk, in hopes of boosting sales in Italy.

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The companies have denied wrongdoing in the Parma case in which trial indictments for dozens of suspects have been sought.

In both the Cosenza case and the Parma probe, Carabinieri paramilitary police, including a specialized branch known as NAS that investigates health care fraud, tapped phone conversations of the suspects.

The NAS commander in Cosenza, Capt. Vincenzo Pappalardo, said in a telephone interview that the patients, who were heroin addicts, consumed some of the pills themselves and sold others, at 10 euros ($11) apiece on the street, to other heroin users. They were being prescribed 10 times the amount of boxes of pills allowed under strict Italian laws regulating prescription opioids.

Judicial authorities ordered the seizure of a total of some 170,000 euros from the three pharmacists. That's the total they allegedly defrauded from the government, which reimburses pharmacists for medicine sold through the national health system.

Frances D'Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio.

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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