11 physicians charged in 2nd opioid crackdown in Appalachia; Pennsylvania doctor charged with prescribing opioids for sex

Eleven doctors were charged in a second opioid sting in the Appalachian area. (Moussa81)

Eleven physicians were charged with illegally dispensing opioids through so-called “pill mills” in the second coordinated law enforcement crackdown in the Appalachian area.

Twelve individuals were charged for their roles in unlawfully distributing opioids and other controlled substances, according to the Justice Department. They were arrested as part of a second crackdown by the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid (ARPO) strike force, which resulted in charges in three states for the overprescription of controlled substances that totaled more than 17 million pills.

In a separate case, a family practitioner in Pennsylvania was charged in a 29-count indictment with dispensing opioids in exchange for sex as well as healthcare fraud, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Emilio Ramon Navarro, M.D., 58, of Coal Center, who operated a private family practice in Perryopolis, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh on charges of unlawfully dispensing controlled substances and healthcare fraud for submitting fraudulent claims to Medicaid to cover the costs of the prescriptions. He was arrested Monday after unlawfully distributing controlled substances to a woman in exchange for sex over a one-year period.

If found guilty, he faces up to 30 years in prison and fines of $1.25 million.

The charges brought against the doctors in Appalachia follow a takedown in April in which 60 individuals including 53 medical professionals were charged with the illegal distribution of more than 23 million pills. The charges brought in April have so far resulted in 11 guilty pleas, including those from seven physicians and two medical professionals, the Justice Department said.

RELATED: Doctors in 5 states charged with illegally prescribing opioids, some in exchange for cash, sex

The charges announced Tuesday were aimed at medical professionals whose alleged prescribing behaviors have contributed to the country’s opioid epidemic. “We said in April that the ARPO strike force was not a one-and-done spectacle, but an enduring commitment to stamp out opioid trafficking by prescription pad. We meant it,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Glassman of the Southern District of Ohio.

Charges were brought in Ohio, West Virginia and Tennessee.

Among those charged was Troy Balgo, D.O., 53, of Saint Clairsville, Ohio, the elected county coroner of Belmont County. He was charged with one count of healthcare fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud, six counts of unlawful distribution of controlled substances and one count of conspiracy to commit unlawful distribution of controlled substances. He is the owner and operator of two medical clinics in St. Clairsville.

Also among the doctors was a physician who owned a Vienna, West Virginia-based pain and rehab center, Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski said in a press conference. From May 2017 to May 2019, this doctor, who had 1,600 patients in a town of approximately 10,000 residents, allegedly prescribed approximately 1.8 million units of Schedule II controlled substances including over 600 prescriptions for fentanyl, one of the most powerful opioids, he said. Some of those fentanyl prescriptions went to a 35-year-old patient from Parkersburg, West Virginia, who fatally overdosed shortly after filling a prescription from the doctor.

The defendants also include a doctor from Hurricane, West Virginia, who allegedly received calls from patients on his cellphone and met them in a car at a gas station or convenience store parking lot, Benczkowski  said. There, the doctor allegedly prescribed these patients oxycodone, hydrocodone and codeine without performing any medical exam and without any legitimate medical reason, he said.