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Southern California doctors arrested in opioid prescription crackdown

Southern California doctors arrested in opioid prescription crackdown
Members of the Drug Enforcement Agency approach a pharmacy Thursday as part of an investigation into illegal sales of prescription drugs by doctors and other healthcare providers. Prosecutors announced the arrests of nine people, including four doctors. (Drug Enforcement Agency)

A yearlong investigation by federal drug agents has resulted in criminal charges against several physicians and other healthcare providers accused of writing bogus prescriptions or selling painkillers and other drugs on the black market.

Dubbed Operation Hypocritical Oath — a play on the Hippocratic oath taken by doctors — the investigation targeted dozens of healthcare professionals in California, Nevada and Hawaii, many of whom came under suspicion because records showed they were prescribing an unusual amount of narcotics, said Bill Bodner, deputy special agent in charge for the Drug Enforcement Agency in Los Angeles.

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In the end, prosecutors filed charges against nine people, including four doctors. More than two dozen people identified by authorities as street- and wholesale-level drug dealers were also arrested, while about 30 medical professionals lost the right to prescribe drugs. During the investigation, agents confiscated 230,000 counterfeit painkiller pills and $3 million in cash and other assets, officials said Thursday.

“Opiate dependency and addiction does not discriminate — it doesn’t matter your occupation, your income or your race,” Bodner said at a news conference to announce the arrests. “We also don’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you’re a member of a local street gang selling counterfeit pills on the corner with a pistol in your waistband or a rogue doctor selling prescriptions in your office with a stethoscope around your neck. If you’re fueling the opioid addiction cycle, we will hold you accountable.”

Among those arrested was Reza Ray Ehsan, 60, a Bel Air doctor who was taken into custody Thursday morning on charges alleging he unlawfully sold prescription drugs to an agent posing as a patient. Ehsan is accused in court papers of buying hundreds of thousands of pills of maximum-strength hydrocodone, a powerful painkiller, and other drugs, which he then sold to patients who typically paid in cash or with a credit card.

Ehsan is also accused of trying to conceal more than $1 million in cash he deposited in recent years into various bank accounts by making deposits that were just below the $10,000 threshold that triggers a review by financial monitors, according to the indictment.

Michael Anthony Simental, 47, of Corona was arrested as well. A doctor at Kaiser Permanente in Riverside, Simental came under scrutiny after one of his patients died of a drug overdose in June, authorities said.

A check of records kept by the California Medical Board and Kaiser turned up a history of red flags about Simental’s prescribing practices and questions about his sobriety while working, according to authorities. And the husband of the overdose victim told DEA agents he and his wife had become addicted to opioids prescribed by Simental.

The doctor “would prescribe them whatever drugs they wanted,” the man said, according to an affidavit filed in federal court.

A review of Simental’s prescribing history identified 100 patients who had been prescribed drugs in an unlawful manner, authorities found.

Simental and Ehsan could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for Kaiser Permanente said that Simental has been on leave since November and that his patients are being treated by other physicians.

Bodner said 15 people who died from drug overdoses had been linked to one or more of the people targeted in the operation. None of those arrested have been charged in connection to any of the deaths.

“As we battle the traditional drug trafficking organizations, we cannot lose sight of fact that some in the medical community are stoking the fires and helping to deepen this crisis,” said U.S. Atty. Nicola Hanna. “That M.D. after your name does not insulate you from prosecution. 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.”

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