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 Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Alabama.
Prosecutors say those charged behaved more like drug dealers than medical professionals.
“They’re going to act like drug dealers, we’re going to treat them like drug dealers,” said Brian Benczkowski, an assistant attorney general. 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.
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.
The strike force, which was created to attack the opioid epidemic late in 2018, worked a two-part investigation. First, they used data analytics including prescription data monitoring programs from the states and Medicaid billing to identify potential offenders. Then they 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.
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 that 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.
The Appalachian region has been hard hit by the opioid epidemic. Ohio was second in the nation for overall overdose deaths and Kentucky ranked fifth in 2017. West Virginia was first, CDC data show.
Prescription opioid overdose deaths in Ohio dropped 28 percent since 2001 even as the synthetic fentanyl took over and overall overdose deaths kept rising. Yet the prescription opioid issue remains critical, Glassman said. About 80 percent 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 their alleged roles in prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics.
Doctors at two Hamilton 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 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.