This article was originally published the Ohio Valley ReSource.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced on Wednesday more than a dozen indictments against doctors in the Ohio Valley on charges relating to the illegal distribution of opioids. These are the first major indictments from the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which started work in December.

“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 in a statement. 

Opioid overdose rates in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia are among the highest in the nation, and death rates in the region due to opioids are twice what most of the rest of the country experiences. 

The indictments charge 60 people, including 53 medical professionals, across seven states with illegally prescribing and distributing opioids and with health care fraud.

The indictments allege a range of wrongdoing related to distribution of opioid painkillers, including unnecessary medical treatments, kickbacks and fraud. Justice officials said the charges involved over 350 thousand prescriptions and over 32 million pills which contributed to the Ohio Valley’s opioid crisis.

“Opioid misuse and abuse is an insidious epidemic, created in large part, by the over-prescribing of potent opioids nationwide, and unfortunately, Appalachia is at the center,” said Drug Enforcement Agency Assistant Administrator John Martin. “Today’s announcement sends a clear message that investigations involving diversion of prescription drugs have been, and continue to be, a priority for DEA.”

Kentucky Charges

In eastern Kentucky, a total of five people face charges.

Among them is a dentist charged for allegedly writing prescriptions for opioids that “had no legitimate medical purpose,” according to the Justice Department. The indictment alleges the dentist also engaged in activity outside the usual course of professional practice, including “removing teeth unnecessarily.”

In another case from that district, Dr. Mohammed A. H. Mazumder is charged with healthcare and controlled substance fraud.

As owner and operator of Appalachian Primary Care, LLC, in Prestonsburg, Kentucky, he is alleged to have had employees see patients despite not having proper licenses, and for distributing and dispensing oxycodone, hydrocodone, and other controlled substances outside the scope of professional practice and not for legitimate medical purpose.

Investigators in the Western District of Kentucky brought forward three indictments.

Assured RX, LLC, a Florida compounding pharmacy, and its owner, Nitesh Patel, are charged with a scheme that involved the payment of alleged kickbacks in return for writing prescriptions for personalized medication that included controlled substances. Patel is alleged to have worked with Bluegrass Pain Consultants in Louisville and its owner Christopher Nelson.

Investigators claim the two organizations also fraudulently inflated the costs for prescriptions that were billed for reimbursement by Medicare and TRICARE.

Dr. Ijaz Mahmood, the owner of Mahmood MD in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, is charged with controlled substance and health care fraud in another case. Mahmood is alleged to have left pre-signed, blank prescriptions to office staff who then used them to prescribe controlled substances when he was out of the office.

He is also alleged to have directed his clinic’s staff to see patients, even if they were not licensed to practice medicine.

Ohio Charges

Six people in the Southern Ohio District have been named, including a doctor who is alleged to have at one point been the highest prescriber in the state.

Justice officials said several pharmacists are also charged along with the physician for operating an alleged “pill mill” in Dayton, Ohio. According to the indictment, between October 2015 and October 2017 alone, the pharmacy allegedly dispensed over 1.75 million pills.

West Virginia Charges

Chad Poage, an orthopedic surgeon from the Northern District of West Virginia, faces charges including fraudulently obtaining acetaminophen-codeine for his own use.

He allegedly wrote out prescriptions for relatives using his DEA number and used a driver’s license that he had stolen from a colleague to obtain the pills from pharmacy in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Dr. Marc Spelar, a Huntington, West Virginia psychiatrist working in the state’s Southern District, is accused of distributing narcotics to a patient who did not have a medical need for them and whom the doctor had never examined.

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This article was originally published by 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Sign up for their weekly newsletter here.