On Wednesday, the United States Department of Justice announced a massive takedown of opioid peddlers and fraudsters in the Appalachian region of the country. Thus far, 60 people have been charged with crimes that have directly contributed to the proliferation of opioids in Southern Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Northern Alabama, to the sum of over 32 million pills toward patients who did not require the medication. The drugs were distributed by whom you might consider to be seasoned drug dealers: doctors, nurse practitioners, pharmacists, and dentists.
The Department of Justice deployed the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, a team of over a dozen health care fraud prosecutors, to the area in December to scour records pertaining to the dispensing of opioids and other narcotics. The Justice Department honed in on this particular region because of its comparatively high rate of fatal drug overdoses. According to statistics cited by the New York Times, three out of the five states covered in this investigation rank in the top five in the nation, in terms of fatal drug overdose rates.
Convictions carry prison sentences of up to 50 years. “You can rest assured, when medical professionals behave like drug dealers, the Department of Justice is going to treat them like drug dealers,” Brian Benczkowski told the press yesterday. Benczkowski is the U.S. Assistant Attorney General.
Beyond the high-profile drug sting, federal officials emphasized that they were using the opportunity to coordinate with local public health authorities in order to offer treatment to those patients caught up in the dangerous opioid scam. “When a doctor who has been prescribing opioids is arrested and his customers show up to find the clinic shuttered, public health and safety officials will be on site to get those folks the kind of help and treatment that they need,” said Benjamin C. Glassman, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, at a press conference.
The Department of Justice highlighted some of the more egregious acts of the doctors drug dealers. One of Ohio’s top dealers ran a pharmacy that had distributed nearly 2 million pills over a two-year period from a “pill mill” in Dayton. Several doctors made blank, pre-signed prescription slips accessible to their nurse practitioner staff, giving them the authority to write out scripts for opioids as they pleased if the doctor was not in. One dentist pulled teeth that didn’t need pulling in order to give patients a reason to need opioid painkillers. A couple health professionals, including one who branded himself the “Rock Doc,” exchanged opioids and other dangerous drugs to patients for sexual favors from their patients.
It’s clear that these acts demonstrate, broadly, that health professionals are getting compensated for dispensing addictive prescription drugs to their patients. Since 1999, opioids have been responsible for the death of nearly half a million people, with fentanyl alone responsible for a majority of fatal drug overdoses since around 2013 when these cheaper, more potent synthetic opioids flooded the black market. In 2017, fentanyl was behind over 25,000 of fatal opioid overdoses. Fentanyl is so incredibly dangerous that the Department of Homeland Security is considering classifying it as a weapon of mass destruction.