By CLAUDIA LAUER and ALICIA A. CALDWELL
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) _ Authorities raided medical clinics, pharmacies and other locations across the South on Wednesday as part of a Drug Enforcement Administration attempt to thwart illegal prescription drug sales.
The raids in Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi were the latest stage of an operation launched last summer by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s drug diversion unit, which has now netted 280 arrests over more than a year, including 22 doctors and pharmacists.
“We have people who have taken an oath to do no harm who are throwing that oath out the window,” DEA Special Agent in Charge Keith Brown said after the early morning raids.
The DEA’s “Operation Pilluted” had focused on the illegal distribution of oxycodone, hydrocodone and Xanax by medical professionals, and does not target addicts. Agents arrested 48 people Wednesday: 22 in Louisiana, nine each in Alabama and Arkansas and eight in Mississippi.
Since January 2014, half of the overall arrests have occurred in Arkansas. It and the other three states involved in Wednesday’s raids each ranked among the top 11 states for hydrocodone prescriptions in 2014, according to DEA data..
“Arkansas is unfortunately not only not immune from this epidemic, but in some ways, we are a leading cause of it,” U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer said. He said the state has 146 million hydrocodone pills distributed annually.
In Little Rock, agents raided the KJ Medical Center within sight of the DEA’s local office, detaining seven people, and also swept into the Bowman Curve Pharmacy a mile away, where one woman was brought out in handcuffs.
Thyer said at a news conference that customers at the KJ clinic were told in November to take their prescriptions to Bowman Curve after a major chain pharmacy raised questions.
He said that, of the 1,484 prescriptions filled at Bowman Curve Pharmacy between December and March, only six were not sent from the KJ clinic.
Agents also said that, during Wednesday’s raid, officers seized four loaded guns and a money counter from the KJ clinic.
The KJ Medical Center was often protected by a security guard while another employee was often stationed outside to direct traffic when patients started showing up around 6:45 each morning. Agents arrested one uniformed guard and another man identified as security personnel, two nurses, a doctor, a man identified as the office manager and a man accused of recruiting homeless people and others to obtain unneeded prescriptions.
Reporters asked the doctor if he was selling pills illegally. He responded, “No,” as he was led away in handcuffs and placed in a prisoner van.
A DEA official had told The Associated Press on Tuesday that, in Mobile, Alabama, agents targeted two doctors accused of running multiple pain clinics.
Thyer said about 130 previous Arkansas arrests were linked to the operation, including one Monday by Lonoke County officials. Police began investigating a Little Rock doctor after a patient’s death was blamed on a prescription drug overdose. He was arrested Monday and charged with 187 counts of fraudulent practices.
The list also includes a 2014 raid on an oxycodone distribution ring that netted 33 indictments.
At a Montgomery, Alabama, press conference, Gov. Robert Bentley, a dermatologist, held up a copy of the license that allows him to prescribe painkillers to patients.
He said that while drugs can help patients, doctors who overprescribe them to aid abusers “change from being a physician to really being a drug dealer.”
“These physicians are an embarrassment to the medical profession,” Bentley said.
Prosecutors said four of the nine people arrested in Alabama on Wednesday were doctors, as were two in Louisiana.
DEA officials said 40 doctors, pharmacies and others have surrendered their DEA registration numbers as part of the crackdown, and two immediate suspension orders were issued. A registration number is required to prescribe certain medications.
Those arrested Wednesday face a variety of state and federal criminal charges, including distribution of a controlled substance and conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance.
Law enforcement officials also have warned that people who become addicted to prescription painkillers often turn to heroin when it becomes too difficult to get a prescription.