The Ohio River Valley and Appalachia have seen the worst numbers of overdose and deaths from the ongoing opioid crisis, but some bad players are being brought to justice. Since President Trump’s 2016 federal health emergency declaration both the federal government and states have been going after the crisis from the ground floor in treatment and recovery up to the suppliers of illicit opioids. Recently federal prosecutors announced a multi-state opioid pill bust charging more than 60 pharmacists and doctors across five states. The crackdown was carried out by the US Department of Justice and the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Task Force (ARPO.)
The numbers of arrests and indictments makes it the largest bust of its kind in US history. The accused includes medical professionals in Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia. West Virginia and Ohio currently rank first and second for number of drug deaths and overdoses per capita respectively.
The pharmacists and doctors are charged with illegally distributing opioids or turning a blind eye to illicit prescription practices. Individual charges include giving opioid prescriptions over Facebook, trading drugs for sex, and one case of a doctor unnecessarily pulling someone’s tooth so they could write an opioid prescription. According to prosecutors the methods used were different, but the outcome was the same – medical professionals writing prescriptions for unnecessary and dangerous amounts of opioids. The professionals charged include general practitioners, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, podiatrists, and many specialties in-between. U.S. Attorney for eastern Kentucky Robert Duncan called the accused “drug dealers in white coats.”
The 60 medical professionals reportedly distributed more 350,000 illicit prescriptions to 28,000 different patients resulting in an estimated 32 million pills worth of prescriptions. The prescriptions included powerful opioids morphine, methadone, and oxycodone. At least five of patients under the accused doctors’ watch died from their prescriptions including one pregnant woman. “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.
How the Bust Happened
ARPO was created in late 2018 to tackle the ongoing epidemic. They used a two-part investigation process to target and eventually arrest the abusive doctors. The task force first poured over prescription pill monitoring data for the affected states and made notes when a doctor’s prescriptions deviated from the norm.
With a list of potential offenders in hand ARPO turned to classic investigation tactics including interviews, undercover work, and additional monitoring to make the arrests. The bust included more than 300 prosecutors spread across the five affected states. ARPO had been working on the investigation since January before making the slate of arrests in late April. “We wanted to move quickly,” Benczkowski said. The investigation by 300 agents started in January and is still ongoing.
Though this was the biggest bust of its kind, it’s not the only movement made against fraudulent doctors and ‘pill farms.’ In 2018 federal officials announced 162 arrests as part of a nationwide fraud enforcement plan. The accused are charged with illicitly prescribing and distributing opioids or other products. One of the busted clinics, Cincinnati Centers for Pain Relief, is accused of writing prescriptions for powerful painkillers fentanyl, morphine, and oxycodone without ever seeing patients.
Details Emerge on Abuse
The Justice Department released several details on the abusive doctors and their cash-grab schemes including a doctor in Kentucky who signed off on illicit prescriptions over Facebook without ever meeting patients, doctors who handed out prescriptions for cash, sending patients across state lines, trying to trick the tracking system with strange prescription intervals. One doctor had his own pharmacy adjacent to the clinic’s waiting room where patients could fill large amounts of opioid prescriptions without raising immediate red flags. “This is extreme outlier behavior,” Benczkowski said. “We’re targeting the worst of the worst doctors in these districts.”
The 60 doctors potentially created hundreds of new opioid addicts but law enforcement and public health officials are not leaving them behind. In a first-of-its-kind effort ARPO has partnered with local public health officials to provide treatment and counseling for those who were victims of overprescribing. According to Benjamin Glassman, US District Attorney for Ohio’s southern district, public health officials will be stationed around the raided or closed offices to direct any patients to the care they need. “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.
Movement on the Crisis
The opioid crisis might have reached its peak in 2017 but it’s hard to track progress until more official statistics are released. Nearly a quarter-million people died from opioid abuse from 1999 to 2017 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention though numbers for prescription opioid overdoses are falling across the nation. The Department of Justice along with local and state health and public safety officials are making several moves to combat the crisis including shutting down dangerous distribution. The CDC currently estimates 130 Americans die everyday from opioid abuse, something that everyone wants to see come down.
“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 Barr said. “But the Department of Justice is doing its part to help end this crisis.” ARPO is expected to expand its enforcement efforts into the Western District of Virginia in late April.
Getting Help for Opioid Abuse
The additional funding across the nation has led to more treatment centers and more help for addicts. If you or a loved one is addicted to opioids seek help at a rehab or treatment center before you end up as another number in the epidemic.