A Kentucky dentist pulled patients’ teeth so they would need painkillers. The “Rock Doc” in Tennessee wrote prescriptions for sexual favors. An Alabama doctor recruited sex workers as pain patients.
Those are some of the 60 health care workers indicted across the Midwest and Appalachia who allegedly doled out millions of opioid painkillers to patients who didn’t legitimately need them. The allegations, which federal prosecutors unsealed in a series of indictments Wednesday, are only the latest in a Department of Justice–led crackdown into the so-called “pill mills” that churn out legal drugs through illicit means.
Federal prosecutors said in a press release that they’ve charged 31 doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurses, and seven other medical professionals, in five states, with crimes relating to distributing controlled drugs and fraud.
One dentist in eastern Kentucky, for example, allegedly took to unnecessarily pulling teeth and writing thick prescriptions for opioid drugs patients didn’t need, according to court filings. Another Kentucky doctor would leave staff at his pain clinic with pre-signed, blank prescription slips so they could get drugs to patients when he was out of the office; another Kentucky doctor passed out prescriptions to Facebook friends who would come to his home for pills.
In Tennessee, a doctor who called himself the “Rock Doc” prescribed hundreds of thousands of opioids and benzodiazepines, sometimes in exchange for sexual favors. In Alabama, a doctor recruited sex workers to come to his clinic and get drugs. Prosecutors alleged the doctors were often motivated by cash-paying patients, and sometimes by their own drug addictions.
Each count carries a maximum 20-year sentence, although some of the people involved in the case were charged with multiple crimes and could face even lengthier time in prison.
“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 in a news release. The entirely Appalachian state of West Virginia has consistently led the nation in its rates of overdose deaths — 57.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2017 — trailed by partially Appalachian states like Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2017, although illicit opioids like fentanyl were behind the bulk of those fatalities, data show. Opioid prescriptions have declined in recent years; prescription opioids were involved in 35 percent of overdose deaths in 2017.
Still, beginning under then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, prescription opioids have been a major target in the Trump administration’s efforts to curb the opioid epidemic. In July, the Department of Justice charged more than 600 people in a massive sweep of doctors doling out fraudulent prescriptions. Since June, the Department of Health and Human Services has bumped more than 650 providers from participating in Medicare and Medicaid — a financial blow to health care workers who want to get paid for their services— over opioid misconduct, according to a DOJ press release.
Cover: Oxycodone pills are displayed, Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)