The Department of Justice (DOJ) on Wednesday announced federal prosecutors have brought charges against 60 health care providers for their alleged involvement in illegally distributing millions of opioids and other controlled substances.
DOJ said the indictments are part of the Trump administration's broader effort to combat the nation's opioid epidemic. The administration's Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force—which launched in December 2018 to target the epidemic in the United States' hardest-hit regions—led the indictments. The team includes data analysts, federal agents, and prosecutors who reviewed data on suspicious prescriptions, spoke to informants, and infiltrated medical offices. DOJ used a new data analysis approach in the case to identify the biggest prescribers and determine how far patients traveled to see them.
The enforcement actions, which were conducted with help from HHS and local law enforcement agencies, comprise the largest prescription-opioid takedown the federal government has overseen.
Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski said the case involves more than 32 million pain pills and 350,000 prescriptions for controlled substances written in Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia. Benczkowski said the number of prescribed controlled substances is equivalent to a dose of opioids for "every man, woman, and child" across the five states.
DOJ said the indictments were delivered to 31 physicians, eight nurse practitioners, seven pharmacists, and seven other licensed medical professionals. DOJ in the indictments alleges health care providers knowingly engaged in health care fraud by providing vulnerable patients with prescriptions for opioids and other narcotics. DOJ claims some of the providers accepted large sums of cash payments for prescribing controlled substances, billed Medicare and Medicaid for unnecessary procedures and tests, and signed blank prescription forms. Further, DOJ in the indictment alleges one provider in:
- Alabama recruited prostitutes as patients and allowed them to use drugs at his home;
- Kentucky unnecessarily pulled patients' teeth to justify giving the patients addictive drugs; and
- Tennessee exchanged thousands of pills for sex.
The charges include conspiracy to obtain controlled substances by fraud and unlawful distribution of controlled substances. Each count carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Many of the providers face more than one count, DOJ said.
Benczkowski said, "You can rest assured, when medical professionals behave like drug dealers, [DOJ] is going to treat them like drug dealers" (Horwitz/Higham, Washington Post, 4/17; Robertson, New York Times, 4/17; Gurman/Randazzo, Wall Street Journal, 4/17; Johnson, NPR, 4/17; DeMio et al., USA Today, 4/17; DOJ release, 4/17).
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- Report: Get 15 best practices to reduce unwarranted opioid prescribing