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U.S. Accuses 11 Doctors Of Illegally Peddling Opioids In Appalachian States

Brian Benczkowski, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's criminal division, announcing arrests for illegal opioid sales in April. On Wednesday, he revealed another 11 arrests of doctors for illegal distribution of opioids.
John Minchillo

Updated at 4:02 p.m. ET

Federal prosecutors are charging 11 doctors with unlawfully distributing opioids and other substances, in the second large operation to target "pill mill" operators and health care fraud this year. Two other people also face charges in the sting.

"The alleged conduct resulted in the distribution of more than 17 million pills" in the Appalachian region, the Justice Department said.

The medical professionals who are now facing charges represent a wide swath of the health care industry. They include Dr. Troy Balgo, 53, the county coroner in Belmont County, Ohio, who also owns two medical clinics; and family practitioner Dr. Samuel Megaha, 69, of Sevierville, Tenn.

The list also includes a psychiatrist in West Virginia who's accused of giving narcotics to a patient with a history of abusing narcotics. And in Ohio, a doctor whose practice focuses on opioid addiction treatment is charged with eight counts of distributing controlled substances.

"Medical professionals who violate their solemn oaths and peddle opioids for profit should know that we will find you and ensure that the justice system treats you like the drug dealer you are," said Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, who leads the Justice Department's criminal division.

The criminal charges stem from an ongoing federal investigation in a region that has suffered horribly from the opioid crisis. Citing the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the DOJ says some 115 Americans die from an opioid-related overdose every day.

Earlier this year, prosecutors from the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force filed charges against 60 doctors, pharmacists, medical professionals and others. Officials said those accused in the case were allegedly responsible for issuing more than 32 million pills — enough for an opioid dose for every person in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia, as Benczkowski said in April.

In an update on the first phase of the sting operation, the Justice Department said some of those charged in the spring have now pleaded guilty — including Kathryn Russell, a nurse practitioner who worked in Memphis, Tenn.

In just eight weeks, the DOJ said, Russell "prescribed more than 7,800 oxycodone pills, more than 6,000 benzodiazepine pills, and more than 1,000 pills of carisoprodol."

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.