April 17 (UPI) -- In one of the largest federal crackdowns on opioids yet, prosecutors said in an indictment Wednesday investigators uncovered a vast illegal prescription scheme in which physicians traded painkillers for sex and money.
The federal indictment involves 350,000 illegal prescriptions in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia.
"That is the equivalent of one opioid dose for every man, woman and child in the five states in the region that we've been targeting," Brian Benczkowski, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department, told The Washington Post. "If these medical professionals behave like drug dealers, you can rest assured that the Justice Department is going to treat them like drug dealers."
Thirty-one doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurse practitioners and seven other licensed medical professionals are named in the indictment. At least one physician is charged with a death in connection to the scheme.
Investigators used confidential informants and undercover agents with recording devices to document the exchanges, prosecutors said. The work was done by the Criminal Division's Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which launched in December.
Prosecutors said in some cases patients consented to have teeth pulled so they could get an opioid prescription from a dentist. In others, doctors traded oxycodone and hydrocodone prescriptions for sexual favors. Undercover agents said patients would travel to multiple states to fill prescriptions. One pharmacy in Dayton, Ohio, prescribed 1.75 million opioid pills between 2015 and 2017, earning it the nickname "pill mill." Others filled fraudulent prescriptions, or allowed known addicts to get more.
"What these doctors have done is pretty remarkable in its brazenness," Benczkowski said.
The charges include distribution or dispensing of a controlled substance by a medical professional and healthcare fraud. If found guilty, the accused could be sentenced to as many as 20 years in prison.
The case is separate from one that charged 162 people for illegal prescriptions and distribution of opioids the past two years.
Nationwide, opioids killed 47,600 people in 2017 alone, the most recent year for which data is available. Much of the addiction problem is focused in the Midwest.
"The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region," U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in a statement.