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Community speaks out for doctor in trouble

Dr. Joseph Z. Zolot, seen last year near his Chestnut Hill home, has appealed the suspension of his license to practice medicine. Dr. Joseph Z. Zolot, seen last year near his Chestnut Hill home, has appealed the suspension of his license to practice medicine. (Globe Staff File 2007 Photo / John Tlumacki)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Hinda Mandell
Globe Correspondent / March 20, 2008

Members of the region's Russian-Jewish community are coming to the defense of a Needham-based physician accused of prescribing pain-killers for dozens of patients who didn't need them, including a number of people who later died of drug overdoses.

Dr. Joseph Z. Zolot and his nurse practitioner, Lisa Pliner, ranked 10th and 9th, respectively, on a list of the state's top prescribers of the most addictive narcotics, a state investigator has said. His report stated that they wrote nearly 12,000 pain-pill prescriptions in 2006.

But in the local Russian community, Zolot, a Russian immigrant, is being held up as a symbol for individual rights by those who vividly recall the brutality of the Soviet regime.

"He is one of us," said Ary Rotman, a former Muscovite who is president of the Russian Jewish Community Foundation, a nonprofit charitable group based in Brookline.

Rotman is among 500 people who have signed a petition, circulated by a local website, that describes Zolot's medical practice as a "last resort and hope" for patients struggling with debilitating pain, and seeks reinstatement of his medical license, which was suspended last year.

A hearing in his appeal against the state's Board of Registration in Medicine is scheduled for tomorrow.

None of the three leaders in the Russian-Jewish community who launched the petition has been a patient of the doctor, they said.

Its coauthors - Leonid Komarovsky of Newton, president of the Boston Russian Media Group; Greg Margolin of Brighton, publisher of the locally run Jewish Russian Telegraph website; and Serge Bologov of Marblehead, executive director of the Russian Community Association of Massachusetts - said they are troubled by what they view as a presumption of guilt against a doctor who has not been charged with a crime.

"He is a nonentity because of an accusation," said Margolin. "As a citizen I find this very troubling. He is already serving a sentence - just because he is accused."

In an Oct. 1, 2007, blog posting titled "Who Framed Dr. Zolot?" on the Jewish Russian Telegraph site, readers were advised: "Even if we don't care about Doctor Zolot and his patients (though we should), we should care about our own freedom."

Zolot, who practiced pain-management medicine at the Nonsurgical Orthopedic Center in Needham, was accused of malpractice and misconduct last year by the Board of Registration in Medicine. The oversight board alleges that Zolot, a Chestnut Hill resident, provided substandard care to 30 patients by prescribing narcotic painkillers when they didn't need them. The Globe reported last year that six patients died. The board suspended his license in June.

Zolot could not be reached for comment, but he and his lawyers have denied the allegations and he is appealing the license suspension.

The response to his situation highlights the tightknit community's sensitivity toward perceived overreaching by the government. It is not an unusual response among Soviet emigres, according to Paul A. Harris, coauthor of "Building a Diaspora: Russian Jews in Israel, Germany and the USA."

"Everything was unpredictable in the Soviet Union," said Harris, who is also the director of the Center for Immigration Studies at Augusta State University in Georgia. "The state could give, the state could take away."

He added: "I can see why the community would be rallying around him. . . . If he's prominent in the community, it's 'Why are you picking on us?' "

Members of the region's Russian-Jewish community are questioning why Zolot is being investigated.

"I don't think the accusations out there have anything to do with him," said Rita Blanter, a registered nurse in Andover who immigrated to the United States in 1981 from Moscow. Blanter said she knows Zolot personally but has not worked with him.

Zolot, 56, graduated from medical school in Leningrad, Russia. He came to the United States in 1988 and obtained his Massachusetts medical license in 1993.

The petition supporting Zolot also backs Pliner, the nurse-practitioner from Bedford who worked with Zolot. Last Friday, Pliner agreed to surrender her license after the state said it could prove she had over-prescribed painkillers. She immigrated from Rostov-on-Don, Russia, in 1991.

The Needham Police Department began investigating Zolot in 2001, and ultimately brought in the US Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, and State Police, according to a spokesman for the Needham force, Lieutenant John Schlittler.

"If it goes on through the court system, the court system will give him every option to defend himself," Schlittler said of Zolot.

Anthony J. Pettigrew, New England spokesman for the DEA, declined to comment, noting he could not even say whether his agency has an investigation involving the doctor.

Zolot's lawyer, Howard M. Cooper of the Boston firm Todd & Weld, also declined to discuss his client's case.

The appeal is being heard by the state's Division of Administrative Law Appeals, where Chief Administrative Magistrate Shelly L. Taylor said the local support for Zolot, including the petition, would have to be offered as evidence by one of the parties before a magistrate could decide whether to admit it into the record.

Efforts to publicize Zolot's case have increased over the last month, with the Jewish Russian Telegraph calling on people in its Feb. 11 posting to "Stop Criminalization of Medicine; Help Dr. Zolot." Community members interviewed by the Globe said they are concerned by what they describe as a lack of government guidelines in regulating the prescription drugs used to manage pain.

"Physicians . . . need to have clear guidelines how to practice (they don't have them today), because chronic-pain patients are not going anywhere," Bologov wrote in an e-mail to the Globe.

A Russian immigrant, he is being held up as a symbol for individual rights by those who vividly recall the brutality of the Soviet regime.

DR. JOSEPH Z. ZOLOT

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