By Jessica Schladebeck

Dozens of doctors and medical professionals across five different states were charged Wednesday with illegally prescribing more than 32 million pain pills in what officials have dubbed the biggest bust of its kind in the United States.

The charges stem from more than 350,000 illegal prescriptions written by 60 medical professionals -- 31 doctors, seven pharmacists eight nurse practitioners and seven other licensed professionals -- across Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Alabama and West Virginia, according to a Department of Justice press release. They include unlawful distribution or dispensing of controlled substances by a medical professional and health-care fraud, which both carry a maximum 20-year prison sentence.

Most of the defendants face several counts and one of them has been charged in connection with an overdose death.

Brian Benczkowski, an assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice, told the Cincinnati Enquirer that the phony prescriptions could have yielded "enough pills for every man, woman and child to get one dose across the five states."

In one case, a dentist allegedly unnecessarily pulled the tooth of a patient, who paid him cash in order to obtain opioid prescription afterward. Another doctor is accused of using Facebook as a hub for illicit substances, signing off on prescriptions through social media without ever seeing a patient.

And several doctors across the region are accused of trading prescriptions for oxycodone and hydrocodone for sex.

"If so-called medical professionals are going to behave like drug dealers, we're going to treat them like drug dealers," Benczwkoski said.

The widespread arrests were the result of a months-long investigation headed by the federal Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike force, created at the end of 2018 to specifically combat the growing opioid epidemic in the region.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Appalachian area is among the hardest hit by opioid abuse. Ohio, for example, ranks second in the nation for overall overdose deaths.

"The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any region," Attorney General William Barr said in a statement. "But the Department of Justice is doing its part to help end this crisis."

In 2017 alone, the opioid epidemic claimed the lives of 47,600 people. The CDC notes that 115 Americans die every day from opioid-related overdoses.

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