COLUMBUS, Ohio — The Drug Enforcement Administration on Tuesday suspended the prescription-writing powers of four physicians in a part of southern Ohio plagued by painkiller abuse while investigators executed a search warrant at a doctor’s office and a pharmacy.
The DEA, citing purchase records from drug wholesalers, said one of the physicians, Dr. Margaret Temponeras, is one of the highest-volume distributors of controlled substances in the U.S.
Temponeras runs a clinic in Wheelersburg in southern Ohio, where there was no answer at the business Tuesday.
“Doctors that prescribe dangerous drugs, for reasons not driven by medical need, are a danger to the community,” said Special Agent in Charge Robert Corso of the DEA’s Detroit division.
The actions came the same day the Ohio Senate unanimously approved a bill trying to regulate pain management clinics known for a drugs-on-demand approach to prescription writing.
The legislation for the first time would require the State Board of Pharmacy to license such clinics as distributors of dangerous drugs. It would impose fines on clinics operating without such licenses and require criminal background checks for clinic employees
The bill, which Gov. John Kasich has said he plans to sign, would also limit how many pills a physician can dispense on site.
Senators added a separate provision to ensure that employees at a county hospital in southern Ohio can keep their accrued vacation and sick time after the facility is sold to a private entity.
The House previously passed the bill, but plans to vote on the changes Wednesday.
The legislation “ balances the needs of people who do need pain medication — but certainly allows us to go after the people who would abuse the prescription drugs that cause so many problems,” said Senate President Tom Niehaus, a Republican who told reporters he’s seen the devastation caused by abuse in his southern Ohio district.
In 2007, drug overdoses — led by an increase in prescription painkiller addictions — surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio. It’s a trend also seen in several other states.
More than 1,300 people died from accidental drug overdoses in 2009 in Ohio, according to the most recent data from the Ohio Department of Health. The number of fatal overdoses has more than quadrupled from 1999, when the state recorded 327 accidental deaths, according to the department.
The numbers are particularly bad in Scioto County in Appalachia in southern Ohio, where high unemployment rates and a profusion of pill mills have led to growing addiction rates.
At least 117 people died of drug overdoses in the county between 2000 and 2008, according to county and state data. Rehab admissions in the region for prescription painkiller addictions were five times the national average in 2009.
Three of the four doctors whose prescription writing powers were suspended Tuesday practiced in Scioto County, including Temponeras, Dr. Mark Fantauzzi and Dr. Michael Dawes.
Fantauzzi and Dawes did not immediately return messages. The two are responsible for prescribing hundreds of thousands of oxycodone products and anti-anxiety medications over the past two years, the DEA said.
The fourth physician who lost his DEA certificate was Temponeras’ father, Dr. John Temponeras, who did not immediately return a message left at his office in Ironton in neighboring Lawrence County.
The DEA also suspended the prescribing certificate of Prime Pharmacy in Portsmouth, where a message was left seeking comment.
Authorities also executed search warrants at a doctor’s office and a pharmacy in Portsmouth Tuesday, said Attorney General Mike DeWine.
Last week, a Chicago doctor accused of running a pill mill in Scioto County was convicted of causing the death of four patients who overdosed.
Dr. Paul Volkman, 64, faces 20 years in prison on those four charges, as well as eight other distribution counts that prosecutors said resulted in fatal overdoses but did not leave enough evidence to convict him of the deaths.