Investigation of illegal painkillers targets 30 in Tennessee

A doctor who prescribed more than 4 million opioid pills, including to a pregnant woman who later died, is one of more than 30 medical professionals in Tennessee charged with illegally prescribing and distributing millions of painkillers, federal authorities said Thursday.

U.S. Attorneys Michael Dunavant, in Memphis, and Don Cochran, in Nashville, held separate news conferences detailing allegations against doctors and nurse practitioners. The health care workers were indicted on federal charges stemming from a sweeping investigation by the federal Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, launched last year by President Donald Trumps administration.

Dunavant said 16 medical professionals have been charged with illegally distributing opioids and other painkillers in west Tennessee. Cochran said nine were charged in middle Tennessee. Another eight medical professionals were charged in the Knoxville-based Eastern District of Tennessee, they said.

A total of 60 people, including 53 medical professionals who wrote 350,000 prescriptions and distributed 32 million pills, have been charged nationally, authorities said in first announcing the charges Wednesday. They said most of those charged were from the five states targeted by the strike force: Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and West Virginia.

Cochran said 650 people died from prescription opioids in Tennessee in 2017. He said those deaths arent really a good indicator of the problem, because a lot of people who go on to heroin and even more dangerous things like fentanyl start with prescription opioids.

Earlier this year, attorneys in the Middle District of Tennessee filed a civil case that temporarily stopped two pharmacies in Clay County from dispensing controlled substances. The county has a population of less than 8,000 people and the pharmacies dispensed 1.5 million opioids, Cochran said.

Two people have died, and numerous others were hospitalized for overdoses shortly after obtaining drugs from the pharmacies, Cochrans office said.

In west Tennessee, which is mostly rural with the exception of the Memphis area, those charged include Dr. Thomas Kelly Ballard III. Ballard, who runs Ballard Clinic in Jackson, is charged with several crimes, including unlawfully dispensing controlled substances and distributing a drug resulting in death or serious bodily injury. The former charge carries a sentence of up to 20 years, and the latter of at least 20 years.

An Associated Press reporter who called the Ballard Clinic for comment reached a voicemail that noted the office is only open on Tuesday and Wednesday. The voicemail did not accept messages. Online court records did not show on Thursday if Ballard had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf.

Prosecutors allege in an indictment that Ballard prescribed 4.2 million opioid pills, sometimes in dangerous combination with other drugs such as benzodiazepines. They said Ballard sold opioids to known addicts and to a pregnant woman, who later died. She was not identified.

Ballard, 61, often used his power to prescribe controlled substances to convince purported patients to allow him to kiss, hug, grope, or otherwise inappropriately touch them, the indictment said.

In their investigation, authorities interviewed confidential informants and analyzed records that showed doctors or pharmacies were distributing unusually high numbers of pills. Patients traveled great distances to get their cocktails of controlled substances from a clinic in the rural town of Bells, the indictment said.

The west Tennessee district borders Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri and includes the intersection of Interstate 40 and Interstate 55. That makes it easier for people to travel to find illegally prescribed drugs in the region, Dunavant said.

Dunavant noted that only five of the medical professionals practice in Memphis. Eleven defendants are from mostly rural parts of the region. A former state district attorney in rural west Tennessee, Dunavant said there may be a perception in rural communities that illegal opioid distribution will go unnoticed.

If youre a small-town doctor and youre the sole practitioner in a small town, where everybody relies on you for medical treatment and for your pill, nobodys going to do anything to you, right? Dunavant said. Thats wrong.

This story has been edited to clarify the sentences Ballard faces if convicted.

Loller reported from Nashville.