Charges Filed Against Dozens in Trafficking Network Responsible for Diverting Over 23 Million Oxycodone, Hydrocodone and Carisoprodol Pills
DEA Takes Administrative Action and Immediately Suspends Seven Pharmacies and Two Providers; DOJ Also Announces Expansion of Health Care Fraud Strike Force into Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio
HOUSTON – A total of 41 individuals have been charged in nine indictments for their alleged involvement in a network of “pill mill” clinics and pharmacies. Those charged include medical providers, clinic owners and managers, pharmacists, pharmacy owners and managers as well as drug dealers and traffickers. Their actions allegedly resulted in the diversion of approximately 23 million oxycodone, hydrocodone and carisoprodol pills.
In addition, federal law enforcement agents executed 36 search warrants including 15 pharmacies and six “pill mill” clinics, as well as other offices and residences, aimed at disrupting networks of opioid diversion. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) also served immediate suspension orders on seven pharmacies and two providers involved in dispensing controlled substances without legitimate medical purpose.
The Health Care Fraud Unit of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section (HCF Unit) led the enforcement actions in conjunction with U.S. Attorney’s Offices (USAOs) for the Southern and Eastern Districts of Texas and District of Massachusetts as well as the DEA (with task force officers from greater Houston police departments) and the FBI.
The charges allege participating doctors, medical professionals and pharmacies knew the prescriptions had no legitimate medical purpose and were outside the usual course of professional practice. In some cases, “crew leaders” and “runners” allegedly filled or had the individuals who posed as patients fill the illegal prescriptions at Houston-area pharmacies. The owner and pharmacist in charge at one pill mill pharmacy allegedly dispensed the second highest amount of oxycodone 30mg pills of all pharmacies in the entire State of Texas in 2019, and the ninth highest amount in the nation. 100% of the oxycodone this pharmacy dispended – every single oxycodone pill that left the premises – was in the highest available dosage strength of that drug.
On certain occasions, the indictments allege drug dealers and traffickers then allegedly diverted and distributed the controlled substances to the streets, with some pills trafficked from Houston to Boston.
“Today’s action shows that the Department of Justice continues to relentlessly pursue criminals, including medical professionals, who peddle opioids for profit,” said Assistant Attorney General (AAG) Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “Our use of data analytics means that no one engaging in this criminal behavior is invisible. And if you behave like a drug dealer, we are going to find you and treat you like a drug dealer.”
“This type of criminal activity is, in part, what is fueling the 68,500 overdose deaths per year across the United States,” said Special Agent in Charge Will R. Glaspy of the DEA’s Houston Division. “The DEA and our numerous law enforcement partners will not sit silently while drug dealers wearing lab coats conspire with street dealers to flood our communities with over 23 million dangerous and highly addictive pills.”
“Opioid abuse has a devastating and far reaching effect on our society,’ said Special Agent in Charge Perrye K. Turner of the FBI’s Houston Field Office. “The doctors, nurses and pharmacists in this case allegedly misused their positions, violating the trust of the public they took an oath to serve. Together with their co-conspirators, these medical professionals released millions of highly addictive drugs onto the streets of our community. FBI Houston remains committed to working alongside our federal, state and local partners to combat this epidemic and protect our neighborhoods.”
In addition to the cases publicized today, Benczkowski and U.S. Attorneys Ryan K. Patrick and John Bash also announced that the HCF Strike Force will expand into the Rio Grande Valley and San Antonio, making it the 24th district with such a presence. The HCF Strike Force is a joint law enforcement effort that brings together the resources and expertise of the HCF Unit, USAOs and law enforcement partners at the FBI, Health and Human Services - Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG) and DEA.
“By and large, these clinics are all about money and not the patient,” said Patrick of the Southern District of Texas (SDTX). “If it was about the patient, no legitimate doctor would write, and no legitimate pharmacy would fill, these massive amounts and combinations of controlled substances. Pill mills are magnets for crime and should be eradicated. I am happy and willing to partner with any agency or police department in shutting down and prosecuting these places. I am also eager to expand our work into healthcare fraud in the Rio Grande Valley. These grifters are wasting tax payer money and making healthcare more expensive for everyone else.”
“I am excited to team with AAG Benczkowski and U.S. Attorney Patrick to fight healthcare fraud in San Antonio and the Rio Grande Valley,” said Bash for the Western District of Texas. “Fraud in the healthcare system not only rips off innocent victims and taxpayers, but it also quite often endangers the health of patients – as with the illegal distribution of addictive opioids. For that reason, it’s a major priority for all of us.”
In addition to the Strike Force prosecutions, law enforcement conducted additional enforcement actions which included the execution of search warrants and suspension of DEA registration numbers. In the SDTX, 350 law enforcement personnel executed a total of 36 search and seizure warrants, including 15 pharmacies and six clinics. DEA also issued nine immediate suspension orders (ISOs) to support related investigative efforts to interrupt an opioid drug diversion distribution chain.
The Fraud Section leads the Medicare Fraud Strike Force (MFSF), which is part of a joint initiative between the Department of Justice and HHS to focus their efforts to prevent and deter fraud and enforce current anti-fraud laws around the country. Since its inception in March 2007, MFSF maintains 15 strike forces operating in 24 districts and has charged nearly 4,000 defendants who have collectively billed the Medicare program for more than $14 billion. In addition, HHS Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, working in conjunction with HHS-OIG, are taking steps to increase accountability and decrease the presence of fraudulent providers.
An indictment is a formal accusation of criminal conduct, not evidence.
A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until convicted through due process of law.