On April 17, 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that it had criminally charged sixty people in seven states throughout Appalachia for allegations related to the prescription and distribution of opioids and other controlled substances. Fifty-three of the people charged are medical professionals, including doctors and nurses. The DOJ worked with multiple other federal and state agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General, the FBI, the DEA, and the Medicaid fraud units in the Appalachian states.
At the press conference announcing the takedown, U.S. Attorney General William Barr stated that the nationwide opioid crisis has created suffering and negative consequences in Appalachia “more than perhaps any other region.” Barr also commended the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which was only established in December 2018, as being one of the DOJ’s “most promising new initiatives.” “Just four months later, this team of federal agents and 14 prosecutors has charged 60 defendants for alleged crimes related to millions of prescription opioids,” he said.
Of the defendants charged, 31 are physicians, seven are pharmacists, eight are nurse practitioners, one is a dentist, and several others are pharmacy owners and medical office workers. Some of the specific charges include those against Ohio pharmacists who allegedly dispensed more than 1.75 million opioid pills between October 2015 and October 2017; a Kentucky physician who allegedly prescribed over 4 million opioid pills, including to known addicts; and a West Virginia orthopedic surgeon who allegedly used fraudulent prescriptions to obtain acetaminophen-codeine for his own use.
Many of the defendants also face charges for allegedly submitting fraudulent claims to Medicaid and other state medical programs. And, in addition to the criminal takedown, the Department of Health and Human Services also announced that it has excluded over 650 medical providers from participating in federal health programs since June 2018 for provider conduct related to opioid abuse and diversion. These announcements demonstrate the commitment by federal and state authorities to continue significant and broad enforcement actions –criminal, civil, and administrative – to combat the opioid crisis.