Feds announce opioid crackdown in Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES (AP) — An opioid crackdown in the Los Angeles area has led to the arrest of four doctors and several other medical professionals, including one physician whose patient died of an overdose, authorities announced Thursday.
Dr. Michael Simental of Corona and Dr. Reza Ray Ehsan of Bel-Air were arrested in unrelated cases Thursday, marking the end of the government’s so-called Operation Hypocritical Oath.
“We’re in the midst of an opioid crisis that is killing tens of thousands of Americans every year,” U.S. Attorney Nick Hanna said. “Some in the medical community are stoking the fires and helping to deepen this crisis.”
Simental, who is facing charges of illegally distributing hydrocodone, practiced at a Kaiser Permanente facility in Riverside. The investigation into him began after one of his female patients died in June.
The patient’s husband told investigators that he and his wife became addicted to opioids under Simental’s care and that the doctor “would prescribe them whatever drugs they wanted,” prosecutors said, adding that they believe up to 100 of Simental’s patients got potentially unlawful prescriptions.
It was not immediately clear if Simental has an attorney.
Kaiser Permanente spokeswoman Tara Pratt said in a statement that Simental has been on leave since November and that his patients were assigned to other doctors “to ensure they continue to receive the care they need.”
“We are extremely diligent in meeting our commitment to the proper prescribing of medication,” she said. “We are also a leader in innovating ways to reduce opioid prescriptions, in particular, to help ensure they are prescribed only when safe and appropriate.”
She did not immediately respond to a question about how Simental would have been able to prescribe the large amount of opioids the government said he did.
Ehsan, who worked in a family practice, is facing charges that he unlawfully sold controlled drugs to an undercover agent posing as a patient.
Prosecutors said they believe Ehsan ordered large amounts of maximum-strength hydrocodone and sold the pills directly to patients who paid for prescriptions in cash or with credit cards and received no medical evaluation.
Ehsan sold at least 700,000 pills in 2015 and 2016, netting him at least $1 million in cash, which he tried to keep under the government’s radar by depositing into accounts under the names of various relatives in amounts just under $10,000, prosecutors said.
A woman who answered at Ehsan’s office hung up on a reporter seeking comment. The name of his attorney was not immediately known.
The yearlong Operation Hypocritical Oath has led to the arrest of 38 people, many of whom were street dealers, and included the seizure of 236,000 counterfeit prescription pills and $3 million, authorities said.
Though federal investigators believe 15 people have died of drug overdoses related to the targets of the operation, they have only been able to file cases in six of the deaths.
Five of the deaths were connected to Dr. Dzung Ahn Pham, a Tustin physician who has pleaded not guilty to charges of illegally distributing drugs by writing prescriptions for patients he didn’t examine. Pham, whose trial is set for March 12, faces up to 120 years in prison if convicted.
“That ‘M.D.’ after your name does not insulate you from prosecution,” Hanna said. “If you are selling your prescription pad, if you are diverting drugs to the black market, you are a drug dealer and we will treat you as such.”