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Three doctors charged in opioid takedown

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Three local doctors are among 13 people charged Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly distributing controlled substances through “pill mill” clinics.

Dr. Troy Balgo of St. Clairsville, Dr. Thomas Romano of Wheeling and Dr. Freeda Flynn of St. Clairsville are among those charged. A total of 12 individuals were charged for their alleged role in unlawfully distributing opioids and other controlled substances and 11 were physicians, the Justice Department said. The alleged conduct resulted in the distribution of more than 17 million pills.

Balgo, 53, is the elected county coroner of Belmont County and a doctor of osteopathy. He was charged with one count of health care fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit health care fraud, six counts of unlawful distribution of controlled substances and one count of conspiracy to commit unlawful distribution of controlled substances.

Balgo allegedly caused and/or conspired with others to cause submissions for health care services that he did not perform, and prescribed controlled substances while he was out of the state or country. Balgo is the owner and operator of two medical clinics in St. Clairsville.

A heavy law enforcement presence was evident Monday at Balgo’s Belmont Urgent Care Center walk-in clinic at 187 W. Main St. in St. Clairsville. Officers were seen entering and exiting the building, which was surrounded by police tape. Belmont County sheriff’s deputies, St. Clairsville police officers, members of the Belmont County Major Crimes Unit and the Drug Enforcement Administration were seen at the clinic and adjoining Secret Serenity Med Spa.

Romano, 69 and a medical doctor, was charged with 20 counts of diversion of controlled substances for his alleged participation in the unlawful prescription of controlled substances outside of the course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose. Romano owns and operates a solo cash-only medical practice in Martins Ferry.

Flynn, 66 and a medical doctor, was charged with eight counts of distribution of controlled substances and one count of health care fraud for her alleged participation in the unlawful prescription of controlled substances outside of the course of professional practice and without a legitimate medical purpose, and with health care fraud for the submission of claims for services which were medically unnecessary and/or performed below medically accepted standards. Flynn owns and operates a solo practice with focuses on medical and opioid addiction treatment programs in St. Clairsville.

The DEA, FBI and Department of Health and Human Services-Office of Inspector General, as well as the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Inspector General, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation and the Ohio Board of Pharmacy investigated the cases in the Southern District of Ohio. The cases are being prosecuted by trial attorney Christopher Jason of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section.

The action Monday follows the first such takedown in April of this year by the Appalachian Region Prescription Opioid task force, which involved charges against 60 defendants, including 53 medical professionals, in 11 federal districts, alleging the illegal distribution of more than 23 million pills. The charges brought in April have already resulted in 11 guilty pleas in seven federal districts, including guilty pleas by nine medical professionals, including seven physicians.

“We said in April that the ARPO strike force was not a one-and-done spectacle, but an enduring commitment to stamp out opioid trafficking by prescription pad. We meant it,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin C. Glassman said. “It’s thanks to the partnership between U.S. Attorney’s offices, the Criminal Division and our law enforcement partners that the United States is able to investigate and prosecute not only medical professionals who are allegedly acting as drug dealers, but also the myriad other malefactors who have contributed — and are contributing — to the opioid epidemic.”

Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division addressed media in Charleston after the operation concluded. He said 115 Americans die each day of opioid-related overdoses.

“Today, we are announcing federal charges against 13 criminal defendants for offenses relating to the overprescription of controlled substances through ‘pill mill’ networks across five Appalachian districts. These charges are the result of the fantastic efforts of the Criminal Division’s Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Task Force — ARPO — in close collaboration with the U.S. Attorneys Offices in West Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia. … To the doctors, pharmacists, and other medical professionals engaged in this egregious criminal behavior across Appalachia and across our country: the data in our possession allows us to see you and see you clearly, no matter where you are. And if you behave like a drug dealer, we will find you and ensure that the American justice system treats you like the drug dealer you are.”

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