According to the Justice Department, federal prosecutors charged 60 pharmacists, doctors, and other medical professionals across 5 states with illegally giving out prescription opioids. It’s the biggest crackdown of its kind in U.S. history.
The defendants stand accused of writing or filling prescriptions outside the course of medical practices, and prescribing them with no legitimate medical reasons to do so.
The list of indicted medical professionals includes dentists, general practitioners, nurse practitioners, podiatrists, and orthopedic specialists.
Authorities say they handed out about 350,000 prescriptions for controlled substances, totaling more than 32 million pills. It spans across Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Alabama, primarily in rural areas.
The department’s Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force was put together last fall to assist areas suffering from high numbers of opioid overdoses and deaths. They sent investigators and health care fraud prosecutors to several different districts to help build cases, starting in January. They then used search warrants, confidential informants, and surveillance.
“You can rest assured, when medical professionals behave like drug dealers, the Department of Justice is going to treat them like drug dealers,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski.
Authorities recognize that closing clinics and arresting the people that were running them won’t solve the addiction problems of the patients. In an effort to help guide those patients to addiction treatment, the federal criminal investigators are linking with public health officials.
Benjamin Glassman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, stated that the hope is “when these facilities are taken down, there are resources in place to give the best possible chance for those victims to get proper treatment.”
One doctor arrested is accused of signing off on prescriptions through Facebook without ever seeing the patients. Some doctors are accused of handing out pills directly for cash. Some patients were given treatments they didn’t need in order to get prescriptions, like a dentist accused of unnecessarily pulling a patient’s teeth. One doctor had a pharmacy operating outside his waiting room, and was collecting rent from it, as well.
Other schemes included writing prescriptions at different intervals than the actual prescribed number of days, sending patients across state borders to see another practitioner, and having patients fill prescriptions at different pharmacies.
“The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region,” said Attorney General William Barr. “But the Department of Justice is doing its part to help end this crisis.”
West Virginia was first in the nation for overall overdose deaths, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Ohio was second, and kentucky ranked fifth.
Nationwide, nearly 218,000 people died from overdoses related to prescription opioids between 1999 and 2017, according to the CDC. Overdose deaths related to prescription opioids were five times higher in 2017 than in 1999.