Body brokers and doctors swindled $6.8 million from insurers for unapproved addiction surgery
Eleven people, including doctors and body brokers, that conned people with addictions into having dangerous drug ‘pellets’ surgically implanted to ‘treat’ their dependencies have been charged with fraud in Southern California.
Body brokers were hired away from their already fringe business of buying and selling cadavers to visit the many sober living homes that have cropped up in Orange County, recruiting patients for a sham treatment, at $40,000 per operation.
Doctors involved in the scheme run by ‘SoberLife USA’ then surgically implanted ‘pellets’ off the opioid addiction drug Naltrexone into the patients abdomens.
The procedure is completely unproven, and if the implanted pellet bursts, it could deliver a potentially fatal dose of Naltrexone, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s Office’s Wednesday announcement.
The eleven people who carried out the extraordinarily negligent con charged insurers $6.8 million dollars and are now facing fines and as many as 43 years in prison, in the case of one of the body brokers.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office has charged 11 people with insurance fraud after the body brokers, doctors and two others conned patients with addictions into getting an unapproved surgery to implant Naltrexone ‘pellets’ (pictured) to treat their symptoms
‘Orange County’s become what’s known as the ‘Rehab Riviera’ due to the proliferation of insurance fraud and the attractiveness of our communities,’ District Attorney (DA) Tony Rackauckas said in announcing the case.
As the opioid epidemic plagues the nation, people desperate to get well have flocked to treatment centers throughout the temperate, wellness-focused state of California.
Costa Mesa, where SoberLife USA was running its scam is second only to Malibu for the greatest number of addiction treatment centers in California.
The city has 102 licensed treatment facilities, according to the Orange County Register – about one per every 100 members of its population of 110,000.
The inundation has frustrated and overrun neighborhoods, and attracted scammers and bad actors looking to take advantage of the overflow of people coming to town desperate to break their addictions.
In response, the DA’s office created the Sober Living-home Investigation and Prosecution (SLIP) task force with specific missions of maintaining order between permanent residents and those in rehabs searching out fraud.
Naltrexone, the drug involved in SLIP’s large fraud case, is one of only a handful of legitimate, FDA-approved medications to help treat addiction, particularly withdrawal symptoms.
But the use advertised by SoberLife USA’s owner, Thuy Rucks, and the doctors and body brokers that were his co-conspirators was not approved, untested and dangerous.
Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist, meaning it interacts with the same brain receptors involved in a the high from drugs like Oxycontin or heroin, but in a less euphoric, intense way.
HOW AMERICA GOT HOOKED ON OPIOID DRUGS
Prescription opioids and illicit drugs have become incredibly pervasive throughout the US, and things are only getting worse.
In the early 2000s, the FDA and CDC started to notice a steady increase in cases of opioid addiction and overdose. In 2013, they issued guidelines to curb addiction.
However, that same year – now regarded as the year the epidemic took hold – a CDC report revealed an unprecedented surge in rates of opioid addiction.
Overdose deaths are now the leading cause of death among young Americans – killing more in a year than were ever killed annually by HIV, gun violence or car crashes.
Preliminary CDC data, published by the New York Times, shows that US drug overdose deaths surged 19 percent to at least 59,000 in 2016.
This is up from 52,404 in 2015, and double the death rate from a decade ago.
It means that for the first time drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years old.
The data lays bare the bleak state of America’s opioid addiction crisis fueled by deadly manufactured drugs like fentanyl.
It is possible to overdose on it, however, and having it implanted in the body could raise the risks of that happening by allowing more of the drug to get into the blood stream more quickly.
Rucks, 78, recruited four body brokers to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, visit and call sober living homes.
They in turn recruited people who were addicted not juts to opioids but to alcohol and other drugs like methamphetamine, too.
The body brokers would pay these ‘patients’ up to $1,000 to undergo the surgery, which was then billed to insurance companies, the district attorney said.
Naltrexone – in any form – does not help to assuage withdrawal symptoms from any of these substances.
‘While naltrexone is FDA-approved in a once daily pill and once monthly shot formulation, it has not been approved for implantable usage,’ Mt Sinai addiction specialist Dr Timothy Brennan told Daily Mail Online.
‘One hopes that new delivery mechanisms could become available, but they should be studied in IRB-approved venues like any other new therapeutic agent.’
The operation involves cutting open a patient’s stomach or back and implanting a pellet of the drug. According to prosecutors, many of the patients were from out of state and developed serious side effects when they returned home.
‘This is unfortunately yet another example of how desperate people can be for a miracle “cure” for their addiction,’ Dr Brennan said.
‘Ibogaine, kratom, now this, the list goes on. All based on junk science or no science.’
Then, SoberLife USA collected big by charging these people’s insurance companies for the bogus procedures.
‘All told, SoberLife USA is accused of billing these insurance providers over $6.8 million in health care claims for this experimental, non-FDA-approved and potentially dangerous surgery,’ Rackauckas said.
Five doctors, two administrators and four body brokers were charged with participating in the scheme through a business called SoberLife USA.
They were scheduled to be arraigned Thursday on various charges including conspiring in unauthorized practice of medicine, insurance fraud, and false and fraudulent claim.
A telephone message seeking comment was left for the owner, Thuy Rucks, 78, of Mission Viejo.
‘I’m quite concerned that this type of experimental work was being done in such an unregulated manner, particular on such vulnerable patients,’ Dr Brennan told Daily Mail Online.
And the scam just perpetuated the cruel cycle that Orange County has seen play out over and over again.
‘They often bring patients from out of state, only to max out their insurance, kick them out on the street, oftentimes contributing to the homeless issue that we are experiencing here in our community,’ Rackauckas said.