By Michael Regan
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — There was a void left among the 3,300 patients of Dr. Matthew Bennett, when he was arrested in August by federal authorities and charged with illegally distributing opiate-based medication out of his Clarence home and North Tonawanda office.
Bennett is now facing years in prison and millions in fines if he is convicted of unlawfully distributing a controlled substance, while he is due to appear in U.S. District Court in February for oral arguments regarding motions filed in the case.
His River Road office was shut down as local, state and federal officials swarmed the River Road Wellness Center to obtain evidence.
But on Thursday, less than two months after his arrest, that office was again bustling with activity, though this time it’s under entirely different leadership.
Within weeks of Bennett’s alleged crimes, officials at the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center began formulating a plan to enter the space, after acquiring an emergency certificate of need from New York state, which drastically expedited what is normally months of bureaucratic processes.
Politician after politician lined up to laud that decision Thursday, in a hallway outside the office packed with staff and doctors who already have launched the River Road Primary Care Center. The facility is now offering laboratory collection and primary care services, with nine staff members and “well in excess of 600 patients,” according to Patrick J. Bradley, a hospital spokesman.
While dozen’s of Bennett’s patients were left in distress after the loss of his practice, Bradley said his organization is putting on a full court press regarding efforts to inform the community of the new endeavor, “to let them know that we have care available here.”
Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center CEO Joseph Ruffolo said the organization has three other primary care facility in the Cataract City, Wheatfield and Grand Island, while he described putting the newest location together as “trying.”
“We’ve done that in record time,” he said, while adding that a complete remodel of Bennett’s former facility was done in just 30 days.
One aspect the primary care facility will not provide is a Suboxone clinic held by Bennett, which offered less potent forms of highly addictive opiates to patients struggling to overcome addiction.
Bradley said that may be a possibility in the future though it is exceedingly difficult to acquire the credentials to perform those services.
State Sen. George Maziarz said the several thousands patients left without a doctor was “a catastrophe,” but praised Niagara Falls Memorial’s quick response as well as their choice in location.
Assemblyman Robin Schimminger called Bennett’s arrest and the circumstances surrounding it a “shocking event,” while adding that the Niagara Falls-based operation “brings to this site a long, long history of primary care services.”
And First Ward Alderman Russ Rizzo mentioned that it is another sign of positive developments in North Tonawanda.
“I think it’s a great, great thing that happened,” he said.
Contact reporter Michael Regan at 693-1000, ext. 4115.