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East TN Docs to Plead Guilty to Pill Dealing

Two East Tennessee doctors who previously surrendered their state licenses have now agreed to plead guilty to federal drug charges in a crackdown on Appalachian pill mills, authorities said.

Dr. Frank McNiel of Knoxville and Dr. Samuel McGaha of Sevierville — both of whom surrendered their licenses permanently after being accused of misprescribing opioid drugs — were among 13 people charged after a “strike force” operation, the U.S. Justice Department announced in a news release Tuesday. The prescription opioid “strike force” included federal agents, prosecutors and health-care officials.

The operation, which spanned five federal districts and drew in various local law enforcement agencies, targeted medical professionals suspected of fueling the opioid epidemic in the region, the release states.

McNiel and McGaha each agreed to plead guilty to one count of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance — the same statute used to prosecute street dealers. In exchange, they won’t be prosecuted on charges they overprescribed drugs while working as doctors, according to their plea agreements.

“Medical professionals who violate their solemn oaths and peddle opioids for profit should know that we will find you and ensure that the justice system treats you like the drug dealer you are,” Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, said in the release.

‘Red flags’ McNiel practiced medicine for 33 years in Tennessee, including 19 at Bearden Healthcare Associates in Knoxville. He ranked as one of the top pain pill prescribers in the nation, and accounted for one out of five opioid products prescribed in the Knoxville area, according to court records from Tennessee’s lawsuit against pain-pill maker Endo Pharmaceuticals.

McNeil retired from Bearden Healthcare Associates in 2012 but kept seeing patients out of his home, prescribing them opioids and other drugs even though his home wasn’t properly licensed, records show. Officials with the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners found he hadn’t been using a statemandated database to ensure patients weren’t getting pills from other sources, and that he lacked complete medical records.

A state review of patient records dating back to 2002 found McNiel prescribed controlled substances too often and in amounts larger than “medically necessary, advisable or justified,” sometimes “not for a legitimate medical purpose,” and without seeking nonopioid alternative treatments.

McNiel surrendered his medical license last year after a series of sanctions by the state. He denied any wrongdoing at the time, telling Knox News, “They have the power now, and they have the goodwill of the government. I can’t fight them.”

The federal charge against McNiel stems from his dealings out of his home. In 2015 and 2016, his plea agreement states, he prescribed opioids to a patient but didn’t order drug screens or use the database — both standard practices to help stem opioid abuse.

On at least one occasion, McNiel wrote an opioid prescription without seeing the patient or making a diagnosis, according to the agreement. Authorities found no records to suggest the treatment was necessary, and McNiel prescribed the drug at double or above national guidelines without talking about the risks.

“All of these facts are red flags in the professional practice of medicine, which should have caused the defendant to stop prescribing opioids to” the patient, prosecutors wrote.

Dangerous drug combinations

McGaha was a licensed doctor in Tennessee for more than four decades. He surrendered his license this January after the state found he had been prescribing “dangerous combinations” of drugs — including opioids, benzodiazepines and muscle relaxants — without documenting the medical justification or explaining the risks.

The federal charge against McGaha stems from his work as a family practitioner at TN Premier Care in Sevierville. From 2015 to 2016, he prescribed a patient opioids and benzodiazepines, according to his plea agreement.

The combination of drugs is considered dangerous because both can cause slowed or difficult breathing — the most common cause of death from opioid overdose.

McGaha prescribed the patient opioids even though he knew the patient had not complied with a previous opioid regiment, had failed drug tests by testing positive for other drugs and did not participate in a pill count, the agreement states. McGaha made no diagnosis that required opioid treatment, nor did he document the risks of opioid use.

Both McGaha and McNiel were charged with prescribing opioids “outside professional practice and not for a legitimate medical purpose.”

The federal charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, but the two doctors are expected to face less time due to their guilty pleas.

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