On Wednesday, April 17th, 60 doctors, nurses, and pharmacists in seven states were arrested in a sweeping sting targeting medical professionals who illegally prescribed opioids to patients, sometimes in shockingly unethical circumstances. Officials have called it the “single largest prescription opioid law enforcement operation in history.”
According to the indictments, which were unsealed Wednesday in a Cincinnati court, 31 doctors, seven pharmacists, and eight nurses are accused of writing nearly 350,000 opioid prescriptions with shocking laxity, with some accused of handing out blank prescription forms and even offering up opioid prescriptions on Facebook. The charges range from unlawful distribution of controlled substances and conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud.
What is perhaps most shocking about the indictments is the number of medical professionals who stand accused of trading drugs for sex. One doctor referred to his practice as a “fun house” and is alleged to have regularly “recruited prostitutes and other young women with whom he had sexual relationships,” giving them the potentially dangerous prescription medication; another nurse practitioner in Tennessee allegedly prescribed hundreds of thousands of pills in exchange for sexual services.
The indictments were the result of a months-long investigation by an Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Task Force, which aimed to crack down on high rates of opioid prescription in the region. Most of the medical professionals arrested operated in Appalachian states, such as Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. (Defendants have also been charged in Alabama and Louisiana.)
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The central Appalachian region of the United States has been one of the hardest hit by the opioid crisis, and West Virginia in particular has one of the highest overdose rates in the country, with 35.5 overdose per 100,000 people, as opposed to the national average of 14.7 overdoses per 100,000 people.
In the United States, the opioid crisis has taken hundreds of thousands of lives, with 47,000 people dying of an opioid overdose in 2017, according to data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). Pharmaceutical manufacturers like the Sackler family, who own Oxycontin manufacturer Purdue Pharmaceuticals, are currently being hit with a flurry of lawsuits, and stand accused of knowingly encouraging doctors to prescribe opioids while knowing the risks of addiction.