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Federal charges filed against 11 doctors in Appalachian opioid sting

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal charges have been announced against more than a dozen criminal defendants in relation to the over-prescription of controlled substances through “pill mill” clinics.

Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski announced the charges alongside U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Mike Stuart on Tuesday afternoon inside the Robert C. Byrd U.S. Courthouse in Charleston.

Included in the list of 13 individuals across five Appalachian federal districts are 11 physicians and three from the Southern District of West Virginia.

Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski

“To the doctors, pharmacists, and other medical professionals engaged in this egregious criminal behavior across Appalachia and our country, the data in our possession allows us to see you and see you clearly, no matter where you are,” Benczkowski said.

“And if you behave like a drug dealer, we will find you and ensure that the American justice system treats you like a drug dealer you are.”

Of those charged, 12 were charged for their role in unlawfully distributing opioids and other controlled substances and 11 were physicians, a release said. The alleged conduct resulted in the distribution of more than 17 million pills.

One of the 13 individuals charged was a doctor from Hurricane, West Virginia, Benczkowski said.

“Who, as alleged, received calls from patients on his cell phone and met them in a car at a gas station or convenience store parking lot,” he described the alleged actions. “There, the doctor allegedly prescribed these patients oxycodone, hydrocodone, and codeine, without performing any medical exam and without any legitimate medical reason.”

Those charged from the Southern District of West Virginia include Dr. Michael Shramowiat, 66, of Vienna; Dr. Ricky Houdersheldt, 67, of Ona; Dr. Sriramloo Kesari, 77, of Charleston; and Julie Wheeler, 43, of Oak Hill.

In the Southern District of Ohio, charges were filed against Troy Balgo, D.O., 53 and Freeda Flynn, M.D., 66, both of Saint Clairsville, Ohio, a community across the river from Wheeling. Thomas Romano, M.D., 69, of Wheeling, was charged for his practice in Martins Ferry, Ohio.

VIEW: Complete list of individuals with charges

This is the second operation by the Appalachian Region Prescription Opioid (ARPO) strike force. In April, charges were filed against 60 defendants, including 53 medical professionals, in 11 federal districts, alleging the illegal distribution of more than 23 million pills.

Stuart said the charges announced on Tuesday are part of the department’s mission to prosecute medical professionals whose alleged prescribing behaviors have contributed to the opioid epidemic.

U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart

“It’s unfortunate we have to take these types of actions but I am pleased they are in the southern district of West Virginia,” he said. “Every block in West Virginia, every community in West Virginia has paid a heavy price because of the opioid crisis.”

The Health Care Fraud Unit of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section in conjunction with its ARPO Strike Force, a partnership between the Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney’s Offices, the FBI, DEA and the U.S. Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General led the efforts. In addition, the operation includes the participation of various other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Ohio Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and West Virginia Medicaid Fraud Control Unit.

Additionally, the Center for Medicare Services, Center for Program Integrity announced Tuesday that it would take any appropriate administrative action based on these charges.

The announcement of charges wrapped up a morning roundtable discussion on strategies to combat the illegal distribution of opioids with leaders from around the state. Those in attendance included U.S. Attorney Bill Powell of the Northern District of West Virginia.

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