Pill Peddlers Popped 

Strike force nets 16 medical professionals for distributing opioids.

Five Memphis medical professionals were indicted last week for illegally distributing opioid prescriptions to patients — in one case in return for sexual favors.

The five Memphis professionals were indicted along with 11 others from Jackson, Tennessee, who were arrested in a Wednesday sweep coordinated by U.S. Attorneys and the Department of Justice's Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force (ARPO).

D. Michael Dunavant, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, said the 16 defendants together allegedly distributed more than 350,000 prescriptions for controlled substances, equalling about 32 million pills.

"Opioid misuse and abuse is an insidious epidemic, created in large part by the over-prescribing of potent opioids nationwide, and unfortunately, Tennessee is at the center," Dunavant said. "We will not stand by and allow the harmful and oftentimes deadly practice of over-prescribing highly addictive drugs to continue unchecked.

Through "good old-fashioned police work," undercover efforts, and data analytics, Dunavant said the ARPO Strike Force was able to identify medical professionals in West Tennessee prescribing excessive amounts of narcotics.

Defendant Richard Farmer, a Memphis psychiatrist, allegedly issued controlled substances at his clinic here without a medical diagnosis and sometimes in return for sexual favors. Farmer is also accused of providing these substances to pregnant women.

Two more local doctors, Michael Hellman and Thomas Hughes, were also taken into custody and indicted Wednesday. Hellman is accused of prescribing large amounts of promethazine with codeine, a Schedule V controlled substance, without doing medical examinations. Hellman gave these substances to confidential informants on multiple occasions, according to court documents.

Hughes, an endocrinologist, is accused of fraudulently dispensing a Schedule III substance for testosterone to himself. James Litton, a former nurse practitioner, is charged with conspiracy to distribute and dispense controlled substances, as well as health-care fraud. Finally, Kathryn Russell, a registered nurse here, allegedly prescribed opioids and other drug cocktails to drug-seekers with no legitimate medical purposes. Court documents also indicate that Russell might have been under the influence of drugs while working.

If found guilty, all of the defendants, with exclusion of Hughes, face up to 20 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $1 million. Hughes, faces up to four years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000 for dispensing substances to himself.

"These physicians are nothing more than white-coated drug dealers with prescription pads," Dunavant said. "And if these licensed medical professionals are going to act like drug dealers, we're going to treat them like drugs dealers."

Dunavant added that he "had no problem signing the 16 indictments," and that there "will be more to come." The ARPO Strike Force, formed in October, is a joint law-enforcement effort by the FBI, DEA, several U.S. Attorneys' Offices, and others. The mission of the strike force is to identify and investigate health-care fraud involving the illegal distribution of opioids.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 130 Americans die every day from opioid overdose.

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