Of the 60 people charged in the largest prescription opioid crackdown in U.S. history, five operated a Dayton medical clinic and pharmacy, including a doctor once called the highest prescriber of controlled substances in the state, the Department of Justice alleges.
Morris Brown continued prescribing opioids “even after learning that some of his patients had experienced overdoses, and in some cases, deaths,” a federal indictment unsealed Wednesday reads.
“That doctor allegedly operated a pill mill and funneled prescriptions to the pharmacy housed in his waiting room, which dispensed over 1.75 million pills in a two-year period,” said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski.
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Brown, a Centerville resident, was among five dozen people charged with peddling prescription pills — a vast majority of them medical professionals — in an Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force enforcement action that spanned several states and 11 federal districts.
A man at Brown’s house who identified himself as the doctor’s son said Brown was not home and not available to talk.
Brown, whose medical license was permanently surrendered last year, owned and operated Dayton Primary and Urgent Care Center Inc. at 301 W. First St. in Dayton. The other four defendants — Ismail Abuhanieh, Mahmoud Rifai, Yohannes Tinsae and Mahmoud Elmiari — were involved in the operation of Dayton Pharmacy at the same address, according to a federal indictment.
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The “takedown” was the “largest prescription opioid law enforcement action ever,” said Benjamin C. Glassman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio, at a news conference Wednesday in Cincinnati announcing the charges.
Amid the opioid crisis that took 70,000 American lives in 2017, Ohio emerged as one of the worst hit states behind only West Virginia in terms of overdose deaths per capita. And consistently Montgomery County led Ohio in overdose deaths, earning Dayton the label of “overdose capital” along with Huntington, West Virginia.
The height of the region’s crisis came in early 2017. In a single month — May 2017 — Montgomery County logged 81 drug overdose deaths, more than half the usual total for an entire year.
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Overdose deaths totaled 566 in the county that year followed by a drastic decrease in 2018 to 289. Law enforcement efforts to cut supply, the availability of overdose-reversing drug naloxone, and community efforts to increase access to treatment have all been credited with bringing those numbers down.
Among those charged with drug crimes are 31 doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurse practitioners and seven other licensed medical professionals, Benczkowski said.
Abuhanieh, of Maricopa County, Ariz., Rifai, of Wayne County, Mich., and Tinsae are all listed as previously licensed pharmacists involved in the operation of Dayton Pharmacy. Tinsae, and the fifth Dayton defendant, Elmiari, are listed as residents of Greene County.
According to state pharmacy boards, Abuhanieh has an Arizona license active through September as does Rifai through Michigan.
Tinsae’s residence is listed as Beavercreek on an Ohio pharmacy license that is also good through September.
A Hamilton County physician, Raymond Noschchang, was also indicted in Ohio. Five doctors a dentist and others were charged in Kentucky. A bulk of the defendants, 32, were indicted in Tennessee jurisdictions while others are in Alabama and West Virginia.
At Brown’s Dayton practice, he is alleged to have performed only cursory medical visits before dispensing large amounts of controlled substances, including to individuals he had reason to know were selling the medication on the street or seeking to feed their addiction, according to court documents.
“Despite some aspects of legitimate medical practice, Morris Brown ran what was, in essence, a ‘pill mill,’” the indictment says. “Morris Brown’s primary method of treating nearly all of his patients was to prescribe highly addictive opioid controlled substances.”
It was between October 2015 and October 2017 that the government alleges 1.75 million pills went out the door, included oxycodone, methadone, morphine, fentanyl, alprazolam, endocet and more, according to court records.
Benczkowski said the sum of all the charges announced Wednesday represent more than 350,000 prescriptions and more than 32 million pills distributed out of health care facilities.
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“More than 300 law enforcement agents made today’s action possible,” he said.
The investigation, modeled on health care fraud cases, relied heavily on data analysis, Benczkowski said.
Federal agents raided the West First Street clinic in November of 2017.
From 2013 to 2017, Brown was paid more than $250,000 by pharmaceutical companies for consulting services and lectures, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services doctor payment data. Each of those years his payments by drug makers far exceeded the national average.
The majority of the money didn’t come from opioid makers, however. The largest payments came from insulin manufacturer Novo Nordisk and Johnson & Johnson’s pharmaceutical arm Janssen, which does make a fentanyl patch but mostly produces cardiovascular and pulmonary medication.