US: Justice Department Announces Enforcement Action Charging 12 Medical Professionals with Opioid Distribution Offenses

Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid (ARPO) Strike Force Combats Unlawful Prescribing Amidst Continuing Opioid Epidemic

The Department of Justice, together with federal and state law enforcement partners, today announced criminal charges against 14 defendants in eight federal districts across the United States for their alleged involvement in crimes related to the unlawful distribution of opioids. Twelve of the defendants were medical professionals at the time of these alleged offenses.

“Today’s Opioid Enforcement Action highlights the Justice Department’s latest efforts in responding to the nation’s opioid epidemic, which last year alone caused the tragic loss of life for more than 75,000 people in the United States due to overdose,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr. of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “The Department of Justice will continue to work tirelessly with its partners to combat this epidemic, and to seek to prevent the next tragic loss of life.”

One of the cases announced today charged a Kentucky dentist with unlawfully prescribing morphine. In August 2020, this dentist issued three opioid prescriptions to a 24-year-old patient in a five-day period. The patient died from a morphine overdose, allegedly from one of the prescriptions the dentist issued during those five days. Another case charged a former nurse and clinic director in Tennessee with unlawfully obtaining opioid pain pills for personal use and further distribution by filling fraudulent prescriptions in the names of current and former hospice patients. According to the indictment, the defendant then used the patients’ hospice benefits to cover the costs of the unlawfully obtained prescriptions opioids. A third case charged a Kentucky doctor with unlawfully prescribing opioids to patients whose health care treatments were paid for by taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid. The defendant allegedly preyed on these patients for continued access in order to bill these programs for medically unnecessary procedures.

“When we helped announce ARPO strike forces in 2019 we said it would be an enduring commitment to stamp out illegal opioid trafficking by prescription pad and we meant it,” said U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Parker for the Southern District of Ohio. “As is evident by the results announced today, we will continue to bring coordinated enforcement actions to address the opioid scourge plaguing the region.”

Today’s announcement also highlighted the continued efforts of the Health Care Fraud Unit’s Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid (ARPO) Strike Force. Over the past three years, ARPO has charged 111 defendants with crimes related to the unlawful distribution of prescription opioids. Together, these defendants issued prescriptions for over 115 million controlled substance pills.

Since its inception, ARPO has partnered with federal and state law enforcement agencies and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices throughout Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, and West Virginia to prosecute medical professionals and others involved in the illegal prescription and distribution of opioids

“The FBI and our partners are working together to combat the opioid crisis and hold accountable those abusing their prescription privileges,” said Special Agent in Charge J. William Rivers of the FBI’s Cincinnati Field Office. “We urge the public to assist us in keeping the community safe by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI with tips about those illegally prescribing opioids.”

“Those who illegally prescribe opioids not only undermine critical efforts to address the epidemic; they also put patients at risk of overdose and physical harm,” said Inspector General Christi A. Grimm of the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG). “This enforcement action demonstrates HHS-OIG’s commitment to working with our law enforcement partners to hold accountable bad actors who abuse their status as health care providers and exploit the opioid epidemic for personal gain.”

“Doctors and health care professionals are entrusted with prescribing medicine responsibly and in the best interests of their patients. Today’s takedown targets medical providers across the country whose greed drove them to abandon this responsibility in favor of criminal profits,” said Administrator Anne Milgram of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “DEA will use every tool at our disposal to stop drug diversion and fraud. And we are working tirelessly each day to make our communities safer and healthier.”

Additionally, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ (CMS) Center for Program Integrity has taken six administrative actions against providers for their alleged involvement in these offenses.

“Patient care and safety are top priorities for us, and CMS has taken administrative action against six providers to protect critical resources entrusted to Medicare while also safeguarding people with Medicare,” said CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure. “These actions to combat fraud, waste, and abuse in our federal programs would not be possible without the close and successful partnership of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the Department of Justice, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General.”

U.S. Attorneys William S. Thompson for Southern District of West Virginia, Carlton S. Shier IV for the Eastern District of Kentucky, and Francis M. Hamilton III for the Eastern District of Tennessee joined the announcement today.

Today’s enforcement actions were led and coordinated by Principal Deputy Chief Kilby Macfadden and ARPO Assistant Chiefs Alexis Gregorian and Jillian Willis. The Fraud Section’s ARPO Strike Force and the Health Care Fraud Unit’s Strike Forces in Miami and New Jersey, as well as the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for the Northern District of Alabama, Eastern District of Kentucky, District of New Jersey, Eastern District of Tennessee, and Southern District of West Virginia are prosecuting these cases. Descriptions of each case involved in today’s enforcement action are available on the department’s website at https://www.justice.gov/criminal-fraud/opioid-enforcement-action-2022.

In addition to the DEA, FBI, and HHS-OIG, the Kentucky and Ohio Medicaid Fraud Control Units; Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; U.S. Postal Inspection Service; and other federal and local law enforcement agencies participated in the law enforcement action.

Key Cases:

Southern District of Ohio

Eskender Getachew, M.D., 57, of Columbus, Ohio, was charged by indictment with unlawful distribution of controlled substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) and 18 U.S.C. § 2, for allegedly prescribing buprenorphine, dextroamphetamine-amphetamine, and clonazepam, outside the usual course of professional practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose, while he owned Polaris Wellness and Recovery Center in Columbus. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Andrew Barras and Christopher Jason of the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid (“ARPO”) Strike Force.

Charles Kistler, M.D., 77, of Upper Arlington, Ohio, was charged by indictment with unlawful distribution of controlled substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) and 18 U.S.C. § 2, for his alleged unlawful prescribing while practicing at Midtowne Family Practice Clinic in Columbus, Ohio.  According to the indictment, Kistler, a family practice physician, unlawfully prescribed hydrocodone and other controlled substances outside the usual course of professional practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose.  The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Christopher Jason and Kathryn Furtado of the ARPO Strike Force.

Southern District of West Virginia

Frederick De Mesa, 48, of War, West Virginia, was charged by indictment with unlawful distribution of controlled substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a), and obtaining a controlled substance using a registration number issued to another person, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 843(a), for allegedly using the DEA registration of a relative to issue prescriptions for opioids. Specifically, according to the indictment, on two occasions De Mesa, who is not a medical professional, issued prescriptions for tramadol. This case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Maryam Adeyola of the ARPO Strike Force and Assistant United States Attorney Andy Isabell of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia.

Eastern District of Kentucky

Loey Kousa, 59, of Paintsville, Kentucky, was charged by indictment with unlawful distribution of controlled substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) and 18 U.S.C. § 2, health care fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1347 and 2, and making false statements in connection with the delivery of health care services, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1035(a)(1) and (a)(2). These charges stem from Kousa allegedly issuing prescriptions for opioids outside the usual course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose while he was the owner and operator of East KY Clinic, PLLC in Paintsville. According to the indictment, Kousa issued these unlawful prescriptions to have continued access to patients whose health care treatment was paid for by taxpayer-funded programs like Medicare and Medicaid and to bill these programs for medically unnecessary procedures for these patients. Sometimes patients waited for hours to see Kousa for their prescriptions but had interactions with him that lasted only a few minutes and sometimes only a few seconds; Kousa is alleged to have fraudulently billed these visits as if they were much lengthier and more complex. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Dermot Lynch of the ARPO Strike Force.

Jay M. Sadrinia, D.M.D, 59, of Villa Hills, Kentucky, was charged by indictment with four counts of illegal distribution of oxycodone and morphine sulfate, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a).  He is also charged with one count of illegal distribution of morphine sulfate, resulting in death or serious bodily injury, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) & (b)(1)(C). This count has a penalty of a term of imprisonment of not less than 20 years or more than life.  These charges stem from Sadrinia allegedly issuing prescriptions for opioids outside the usual course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose while he was the owner and operator of multiple dental practices in northern Kentucky, including Tristate Implant and Sedation Dentistry.  According to the indictment, in August 2018, Sadrinia issued multiple prescriptions in a short time frame to a patient who ultimately overdosed on the morphine prescribed by Sadrinia.  Sadrinia issued this patient two oxycodone prescriptions for a total of 60 pills, and two morphine prescriptions for a total of 48 pills, within an 8-day period.  The case is being prosecuted by Principal Assistant Deputy Chief Kilby Macfadden and Trial Attorney Christopher Jason of the ARPO Strike Force.

Eastern District of Tennessee

Yogeshwar Gill, 45, of Manchester, Tennessee, was charged by indictment with conspiracy to unlawfully distribute controlled substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, unlawful distribution of controlled substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841, and maintaining a drug-involved premises, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 856. Gill, a family medicine doctor, who owned and operated a medical practice in Manchester, was charged in connection with an alleged scheme to distribute opioids and Suboxone outside the usual course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Emily Petro of the ARPO Strike Force and Assistant U.S. Attorney James Brooks of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee.

Middle District of Tennessee

Contessa Holley, 45, of Pulaski, Tennessee, was charged by indictment with wire fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1343 and 2, aggravated identity theft, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§  1028A and 2, and possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a), in connection with an alleged scheme to unlawfully obtain opioids by filling fraudulent prescriptions in the names of current and former hospice patients. Holley, a former nurse and clinical director, allegedly used the personally identifiable information of her patients at two different hospices to fill unauthorized prescriptions for thousands of hydrocodone and oxycodone pills. According to the indictment, Holley used the patients’ hospice benefits to cover the costs of the unlawfully obtained prescription opioids, but allegedly kept the drugs for her own use and further distribution. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorneys Emily Petro and Leslie Fisher of the ARPO Strike Force.

Hau T. La, 54, of Brentwood, Tennessee, was charged by indictment with sixteen counts of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a).  La operated Absolute Medical Care, a medical clinic in Smyrna, Tennessee, where he is alleged to have unlawfully prescribed opioids.  Specifically, according to the indictment, La prescribed oxycodone, oxymorphone, and morphine to eight patients outside the usual course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose. The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Leslie Fisher of the ARPO Strike Force.

Northern District of Alabama

Francene Aretha Gayle, 48, of Orlando, Florida, and Schara Monique Davis, 46, of Huntsville, Alabama, were charged by indictment with conspiracy to unlawfully distribute controlled substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846, conspiracy to commit health care fraud, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1349, and health care fraud in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1347 and 2. Gayle was also charged with several substantive counts of illegally issuing opioid prescriptions, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a). According to the indictment, between 2015 and March 2020, Gayle and Davis operated three medical clinics in Huntsville, Athens, and Killen, Alabama, where Gayle served as the sole physician and Davis served as the business manager. The clinics billed insurers for millions of dollars in patient office visits that Gayle supposedly conducted, but Gayle was allegedly absent from the clinics and other staff conducted patients visits instead. During these visits, patients regularly received opioid prescriptions that Gayle allegedly pre-signed. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney J.B. Ward of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Alabama.

Southern District of Florida

Casey Kelleher, 43, of Lake Worth, Florida, was charged by information with conspiracy to unlawfully distribute controlled substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846.  According to court documents, the charge stems from Kelleher’s ownership and operation of a pharmacy, Neighborhood Pharmacy, in Boynton Beach, Florida, where Kelleher purchased large amounts of two powerful, short-acting opioids: oxycodone and hydromorphone.  From 2019 to 2021, Neighborhood Pharmacy was by far the largest purchaser of these opioids in its zip code.  Instead of dispensing these drugs pursuant to valid prescriptions, Kelleher sold the vast majority of the opioids onto the black market.  Specifically, over a two-year period, Kelleher sold 219,567 pills of oxycodone and 112,840 pills of hydromorphone onto the black market.   The case is being prosecuted by Trial Attorney Alexander Thor Pogozelski of the Miami Strike Force.

District of New Jersey

Robert K. Taffet, 63, of Haddonfield, New Jersey was charged by criminal complaint with conspiracy to unlawfully distribute controlled substances, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 846. Taffet, a doctor and the owner of a medical practice in Sicklerville, New Jersey, allegedly issued prescriptions for opioids and other controlled substances to patients without assessing them in person or by telemedicine.  The complaint also alleges Taffet falsified patient files to suggest he interacted with a patient on occasions when he, in fact, did not.  According to the complaint, Taffet issued prescriptions that resulted in over 179,000 pills containing oxycodone hydrochloride, morphine sulfate, and methadone hydrochloride being dispensed by New Jersey pharmacies between April 27, 2020, and December 20, 2021.  The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey B. Bender of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey and Trial Attorney Nicholas K. Peone of the Newark Strike Force.

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