JACKSON, Miss. — During March, the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics worked a drug overdose case every other day, on average.
MBN Director John Dowdy said about 90% of those were opioid-related. In 2016, 37 health care providers were arrested by state agents for pharmaceutical diversion.
So when officials say they’re serious about cracking down on health care providers who are enabling drug addicts, they have good reason.
“Obviously they’re not getting the point, so prescribers in the state of Mississippi need to understand we’re serious about the opioid epidemic that we have, and we’re coming. You don’t want MBN and you don’t want DEA knocking at your door,” he said.
In a news conference Wednesday, officials announced that two nurse practitioners have been charged and two doctors have surrendered their DEA licenses, in addition to a pharmacy that faces civil action, after a month-long investigation by state and federal drug agents.
Nurse practitioners Brenda Shelton, 54, of Ripley, and Amanda Jones, 35, of Starkville are facing charges after the pharmaceutical diversion investigation by the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics and the Drug Enforcement Administration in Tupelo, Ripley and West Point.
Shelton is charged with prescription fraud, as she was found allegedly prescribing controlled substances without a valid DEA license and without an advanced practice registered nurse license. Officials say she surrendered both licenses in 2014.
Reports from the State Board of Pharmacy show she wrote 55 controlled substance prescriptions over two years.
Jones was arrested for allegedly writing prescriptions for Adderall, which is a Schedule II controlled substance, in the name of a family member. The prescriptions would then be filled at local pharmacies. She surrendered her DEA license earlier this month.
Dr. William Bell, 49, of Tupelo, has not been charged but surrendered his DEA license for allegedly prescribing controlled pharmaceutical drugs. Authorities say he was practicing outside the scope of an emergency room physician when he was found to be writing prescriptions for Adderall and Clonazepam, which is a Schedule IV controlled substance. Bell was allegedly writing the prescriptions for himself, family members and friends.
Dr. Dwalia South, 62, of Ripley, also has not been charged but was allegedly conspiring with Shelton to write prescriptions.
South was sworn in a member of the state Board of Health in 2015, and according to the latest Blue Book from the secretary of state’s office, is still on the board. She has been a family practice physician at Ripley Health Care Associates, a satellite campus of North Mississippi Primary Health Care, since 1995. In 2003 she was named Mississippi Family Physician of the Year and was listed as one of America’s Top Family Doctors of the Year in 2004-05.
Authorities say South and Shelton worked with Hollis Discount Pharmacy of Ripley to alter the prescriptions in the Board of Pharmacy’s prescription monitoring program.
Hollis Discount Pharmacy faces civil action for its involvement in the conspiracy, officials said.
Nationally, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids has quadrupled since 1999, killing 91 Americans every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The crisis has been exacerbated by a spike in the use of synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, which are super potent and deadly.
“The lion’s share of those (deaths) are prescription drug overdoses,” Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher said. “This is important. It’s not about putting people in prison. We’re not going to arrest our way out of this. We’ve got to get the attention of these health care providers.”
In 2011, heroin began showing up in Mississippi, but most of it was in interdiction stops, as it was on its way to Atlanta or Chicago on the interstate highways. But year after year, it has increased as a problem until in 2016, law enforcement around the state made 279 heroin seizures. Fisher said that’s not because of overzealous law enforcement cracking down on prescription drugs as some people suggest.
“If you want to believe that, it’s fine, you can believe in the Easter Bunny, too,” he said. “It’s because there’s an overprescribing and overproduction of opioids represented as medication you can take as simple as Tylenol or Advil.”
Adderall has become a problem as well, MBN Deputy Director Steven Maxwell said.
“It’s a drug of choice for all ages. It used to be college kids, but now it’s adults, too. For the illicit user, it’s a good drug and it’s easily obtained,” he said.
And heroin is cheaper and easier to come by in the end, so drug users will make the switch. Recent studies show that half of heroin abusers report abusing prescription opioids before they moved to heroin.
Fisher and Dowdy were appointed in the last year by Gov. Phil Bryant, and both stated the opioid epidemic will be a focus of state drug enforcement resources. On Wednesday, they made it clear it doesn’t matter if you’re a dealer in an alley or a dealer in a doctor’s office.
“If we find out that your prescription habits are causing addiction problems, we’ll come find you,” Dowdy said. “If we have overdose deaths related to your prescribing habits, let this serve as notice to the health care professionals in this state, we’re not playing around anymore.”