By Zachary Fagenson
MIAMI (Reuters) - Seven doctors and three other suspects were arrested on Thursday in Florida's latest strike against "pill mills" and the illegal distribution of widely abused pain-killer drugs such as oxycodone, authorities said.
Florida claims to have made enormous strides the last two years against the criminals behind a nationwide epidemic of prescription drug abuse. But the lucrative trade that gave Florida the nickname "Oxy Express" continues to thrive in some areas.
The state once had 90 of the top 100 oxycodone-purchasing physicians in the nation and 53 of the top 100 oxycodone-purchasing pharmacies. That made Florida a big lure for drug buyers on overnight shopping trips from other states.
"This was simply a moneymaking thing," said Mark Trouville, who heads the Miami Field Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
He was referring to Pompano Beach Medical, the Fort Lauderdale-area clinic that was the target of Thursday's raids. Undercover DEA agents had visited the clinic on multiple occasions between April 2010 and June 2012 and confirmed it was pushing drugs under the guise of legitimate medical practices, Trouville said.
He said thousands of doses of oxycodone and other controlled substances, including methadone, were prescribed to the agents even though none of them displayed any symptoms of medical problems that warranted treatment with potentially lethal drugs.
One prescription was written out to an agent after a cursory medical exam that consisted of him touching his toes and having his heart checked with "a stethoscope to the wrong side of the chest," Trouville said.
The clinic's owners and two former owners were among those arrested Thursday, and some of the doctors linked to the clinic, formerly known as Pain Management Inc, were taken into custody as far away as New York and Chicago.
Apart from trafficking in controlled substances, charges included racketeering and conspiracy to commit money laundering, prosecutors said.
In March 2011, Florida created a statewide task force to step up its fight against the criminal distribution of prescription drugs.
But Trouville, who said a new unit was being added to the task force in Palm Beach, acknowledged that there may still be a lot more work to do fighting those responsible for feeding a nationwide epidemic of prescription drug abuse.
"The DEA will remain focused on working with our state and local law enforcement partners until these pill mills and rogue doctors are put out of business," he said.
(Writing By Tom Brown; editing by Philip Barbara)