(CBS News) — Dozens of people, including 53 medical professionals, have been charged for their alleged participation in the illegal prescription and distribution of opioids and other narcotics, Justice Department and Department of Health and Human Services officials said Wednesday. Federal law enforcement and health officials held a press conference in Cincinnati where they announced charges resulting from the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force takedown operation that began only four months ago.
“The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement. “But the Department of Justice is doing its part to help end this crisis. One of the Department’s most promising new initiatives is the Criminal Division’s Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force (ARPO), which began its work in December.”
The charges leveled by the ARPO Strike Force involve over 350,000 prescriptions and over 32 million pills distributed out by health care officials across 11 states including Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Florida. Thirty-one doctors, seven pharmacists and eight nurse practitioners were charged on Wednesday. Some of the examples of medical malfeasance found in the indictment are striking in their scope.
- According to the indictment, one pharmacy in Dayton, Ohio prescribed over 1.75 million opioid pills between October 2015 and October 2017, earning the nefarious designation of “pill mill,” a medical office that prescribes opioids for no legitimate health care purpose.
- The indictment states one doctor in the Western District of Tennessee, who called himself the “Rock Doc,” would exchange opioids and benzodiazepines with patients in return for sexual favors. Over a three-year period this doctor prescribed approximately 500,000 hydrocodone pills, 300,000 oxycodone pills, 1,500 fentanyl patches, and more than 600,000 benzodiazepine pills.
- One doctor charged in Tennessee allegedly prescribed approximately 4.2 million opioid pills.
- A 30-year-old patient in Alabama allegedly overdosed after being prescribed more than 800 oxycodone pills over two months prior to her death, whereupon the doctor who prescribed them allegedly directed the patient’s husband to dispose of all pill bottles before police arrived at the scene.
The indictment lists other alleged abuses by medical professionals that include filling fraudulent prescriptions, prescribing opioids to known addicts, and providing Facebook friends with opioid prescriptions based on messenger requests.
“Opioid misuse and abuse is an insidious epidemic, created in large part, by the over-prescribing of potent opioids nationwide, and unfortunately, Appalachia is at the center,” said John Martin, Drug Enforcement Agency Assistant Administrator, on Wednesday. “Today’s announcement sends a clear message that investigations involving diversion of prescription drugs have been, and continue to be, a priority for DEA.”
According to the Center of Disease Control, approximately 115 Americans die every day from opioid-related overdoses. The National Institute of Drug Abuse calculated that over 70,000 Americans died of drug abuse in 2017, including 47,000 from any opioid and 28,400 from fentanyl and its analogs.