DOJ charges 12 medical professionals in illegal opioid distribution bust

Defendants include dentists, nurses, and doctors who authorities say committed illegal opioid trafficking 'by prescription pad'

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The Justice Department on Wednesday announced charges against 14 defendants, including 12 medical professionals, for their alleged involvement in crimes related to unlawful opioid distribution, including at least one doctor who allegedly preyed on low income and elderly patients to bill medically unnecessary procedures.  

Of the cases spanning across eight federal districts in the Appalachian region, a Kentucky dentist was charged with unlawfully prescribing morphine. In August 2020, this dentist issued three opioid prescriptions to a 24-year-old patient in a five-day period. The patient died from a morphine overdose, allegedly from one of the prescriptions the dentist issued during those five days. 

Another case charged a former nurse and clinic director in Tennessee with unlawfully obtaining opioid pain pills for personal use and further distribution by filling fraudulent prescriptions in the names of current and former hospice patients. According to the indictment, the defendant then used the patients’ hospice benefits to cover the costs of the unlawfully obtained prescriptions opioids. 

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Opioid epidemic, drug abuse concept with closeup on two heroin syringes or other narcotics surrounded by scattered prescription opioids. Oxycodone is the generic name for a range of opioid painkillers

Opioid epidemic, drug abuse concept with closeup on two heroin syringes or other narcotics surrounded by scattered prescription opioids. Oxycodone is the generic name for a range of opioid painkillers (iStock)

A third case charged a Kentucky doctor with unlawfully prescribing opioids to patients whose health care treatments were paid for by taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid. Federal prosecutors accuse the defendant of preying on patients for continued access to bill these programs for medically unnecessary procedures.

In the last year alone, the U.S. has seen 75,000 people die from overdoses, Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the DOJ’s Criminal Division, said, stressing the importance of the department's work with federal and state law enforcement partners to combat the epidemic and "prevent the next tragic loss of life."

Bottles of several opioid based medication at a pharmacy in Portsmouth, Ohio, June 21, 2017.  

Bottles of several opioid based medication at a pharmacy in Portsmouth, Ohio, June 21, 2017.   (Bryan Woolston / REUTERS)

Since its inception in 2019, the DOJ’s Health Care Fraud Unit’s Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid (ARPO) Strike Force has been committed "to stamp out illegal opioid trafficking by prescription pad," and "will continue to bring coordinated enforcement actions to address the opioid scourge plaguing the region," U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Parker for the Southern District of Ohio said in a statement. 

In the past three years, the strike force, also partnering with U.S. Attorneys’ Offices throughout Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, and West Virginia, has charged 111 defendants with crimes related to the unlawful distribution of prescription opioids. Together, these defendants issued prescriptions for over 115 million controlled substance pills.

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Tuesday’s "takedown targets medical providers across the country whose greed drove them to abandon this responsibility in favor of criminal profits," Administrator Anne Milgram of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) said. "DEA will use every tool at our disposal to stop drug diversion and fraud. And we are working tirelessly each day to make our communities safer and healthier."

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Center for Program Integrity said it has taken six administrative actions against providers for their alleged involvement in these offenses. The steps are intended to combat fraud, waste, and abuse in federal programs and protect critical resources entrusted to Medicare, while also safeguarding people with Medicare coverage.