60 charged in historic prescription opioid takedown

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ROANOKE, Va. (WHSV/AP) — Federal authorities said Wednesday they have charged 60 people, including a doctor accused of trading drugs for sex and another of prescribing to his Facebook friends, for their roles in illegally prescribing and distributing millions of pills containing opioids and other drugs.

U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman of Cincinnati described the action, with 31 doctors facing charges, as the biggest known takedown yet of drug prescribers. Robert Duncan, U.S. attorney for eastern Kentucky, called the doctors involved "white-coated drug dealers."

Authorities said the 60 includes 53 medical professionals tied to some 350,000 prescriptions and 32 million pills. The operation was conducted by the federal Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, launched last year by the Trump administration.

Authorities said arrests were being made and search warrants carried out as they announced the charges at a news conference. They didn't immediately name those being charged.

U.S. health authorities have reported there were more than 70,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, for a rate of 21.7 per 100,000 people. West Virginia and Ohio have regularly been among the states with the highest overdose death rates as the opioid crisis has swelled in recent years.

Among those charged was a Tennessee doctor who dubbed himself the "Rock Doc" and is accused of prescribing dangerous combinations of drugs such as fentanyl and oxycodone, sometimes in exchange for sex, authorities said

Others include a Kentucky doctor who is accused of writing prescriptions to Facebook friends who came to his home to pick them up, another who allegedly left signed blank prescriptions for staff to fill out and give to patients, and a Kentucky dentist accused of removing teeth unnecessarily and scheduling unneeded follow-up appointments.

A Dayton, Ohio, doctor was accused of running a "pill mill" that allegedly dispensed 1.75 million pills in a two-year period. Authorities said an Alabama doctor recruited prostitutes and other women he had sexual relations with to his clinic and allowed them to abuse drugs in his home.

Most of those charged came from the five strike force states of Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia. One person each was also arrested in Pennsylvania and Louisiana.

"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 P. Barr said. “But the Department of Justice is doing its part to help end this crisis. One of the Department's most promising new initiatives is the Criminal Division's Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which began its work in December. Just four months later, this team of federal agents and 12 prosecutors has charged 60 defendants for alleged crimes related to millions of prescriptions. I am grateful to the Criminal Division, their U.S. Attorney partners, and to the members of the strike force for this outstanding work that holds the promise of saving many lives in Appalachian communities.”

Attorney General Barr and U.S. Attorney Thomas T. Cullen also announced that the ARPO Strike Force will expand into the Western District of Virginia, which covers the Shenandoah Valley.

“The opioid epidemic has ravaged communities throughout the Western District of Virginia,” U.S. Attorney Cullen stated. “In order to mitigate this crisis, we are working closely with our federal, state, and local partners on targeted and impactful enforcement initiatives, including the prosecution of corrupt health-care providers, drug-trafficking organizations, and those involved in Fentanyl distribution. I am grateful to Attorney General Barr for deploying the ARPO Strike Force into Western Virginia and dedicating additional resources to help us with these critical efforts.”

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