CINCINNATI - Federal prosecutors charged 60 physicians and pharmacists Wednesday with illegally handing out opioid prescriptions in what they say is the biggest crackdown of its kind in U.S. history.
A special strike force from the U.S. Department of Justice, which led the investigation, began making arrests in five states early Wednesday.
Most of the defendants face charges of unlawful distribution of controlled substances involving prescription opioids. Authorities say they gave out about 350,000 prescriptions totaling more than 32 million pills in Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Prosecutors say those charged behaved more like drug dealers than medical professionals.
"If so-called medical professionals are going to behave like drug dealers, we're going to treat them like drug dealers," said Brian Benczkowski, an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice. The defendants are accused of writing or filling prescriptions outside the course of medical practices and prescribing them despite having no legitimate medical reasons to do so, he said.
The Appalachian Regional Prescription Strike Force included more than 300 investigators from jurisdictions in all five states. Though targeting illegal prescriptions was a priority, federal officials say it wasn't the only goal.
In a first-of-its-kind effort, the federal criminal investigators are linking with public health to try to guide those who received the rogue prescriptions to addiction treatment, said Benjamin Glassman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.
Glassman said authorities recognize that closing clinics and arresting those who ran them won't solve the addiction problems of the patients who received the prescriptions. to help, he said, a public health official will be stationed at every clinic affected by the arrests.
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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," Glassman said.
"Opioids are the public health and safety crisis of our lifetime," he said. "This innovation, I hope, will be a road map for the future."
The strike force, which was created to attack the opioid epidemic late in 2018, worked a two-part investigation. First, it used data analytics including prescription data monitoring programs from the states and Medicaid billing to identify potential offenders. Then it followed up with traditional, boots-on-the-ground law enforcement to zero in on suspects.
"We wanted to move quickly," Benczkowski said. The investigation went from January to Wednesday.
Federal prosecutors said illegal prescriptions are especially devastating to rural communities, where patients often have limited options when seeking medical help. If the doctor those patients see is peddling illegal prescriptions, prosecutors said, the damage to small towns can be dramatic.
The arrests Wednesday removed many doctors who "are simply white-coated drug dealers," said J. Douglas Overbey, U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of Tennessee.
The arrests included a doctor in Kentucky who is accused of signing off on prescriptions via Facebook, without ever seeing the patients. Other doctors are accused of handing out pills directly for cash payments, including to pregnant women.
The defendant list includes 31 doctors, 22 other licensed medical professionals and seven others who are owners, operators or clinic employees, Benczkowski said.
Thousands of people would have received the illicit prescriptions. "It's enough pills for every man, woman and child to get one dose across the five states," he said.
Some people were given treatments they did not need in order to get the prescriptions filled. He mentioned a dentist who is accused of unnecessarily pulling a patient's teeth.
The range of schemes included sending patients across state borders to see another general practitioner, writing prescriptions at different intervals rather than the originally prescribed number of days, and having patients fill prescriptions at different pharmacies.
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The Appalachian region has been hard hit by the opioid epidemic. West Virginia was first, CDC data show. Ohio was second in the nation for overall overdose deaths.
Prescription opioid overdose deaths in Ohio dropped 28% since 2001 even as the synthetic fentanyl took over and overall overdose deaths kept rising. Yet prescription opioids remain critical, Glassman said. About 80% of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse statistics.
Last year, as part of a nationwide healthcare fraud enforcement action, federal officials announced charges against 162 people for suspected roles in prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics.
Doctors at two Hamilton, Ohio, medical clinics that prosecutors called "pill mills" were among those charged.
At one of the clinics, Cincinnati Centers for Pain Relief, officials said patients were often prescribed fentanyl, oxycodone, morphine and other highly addictive drugs without being seen by a doctor.
Across America, almost 218,000 people died from overdoses related to prescription opioids from 1999 to 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2017 than in 1999.
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Doctors, pharmacists in 5 states charged in prescription pain pill bust totaling 32 million pills