It was Phase II of the two-year Operation Pill Nation, announced at a news conference at DEA offices in Weston on Thursday.
"The DEA does not target doctors; we target drug traffickers," DEA Special Agent in Charge Mark Trouville said.
A pain clinic on East Sample Road near Dixie Highway in Pompano Beach was surrounded by a half-dozen unmarked police vehicles Thursday afternoon as Broward Sheriff's deputies and U.S. Drug Enforcement agents wearing protective gear hauled out boxes from Pompano Beach Medical Corp. into a waiting van.
Seven vehicles and 11 weapons were seized as well.
Seven doctors, three clinic owners and one owner's relative have been charged with racketeering, trafficking in a controlled substance, money laundering and other crimes, investigators said.
"These 11 people are allegedly responsible for threatening the lives of countless Floridians by illegally distributing thousands of pills in South Florida," Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement.
Among those arrested were: Dr. Marcia Sills, 59, of Fort Lauderdale; Dr. Gabriel Sanchez, 74, of Tamarac; Dr. Mark Cukierman, 56, of Boca Raton; Dr. Michael Fronstin, 75, of Palm Beach Gardens; Dr. Adeline Essian, 59, in Chicago; and Dr. Khanh Van Kim Duong, 33, in New York.
Dr. Thomas Rodenberg, 53, of Fort Lauderdale, was being sought in Tennessee, officials said.
Also arrested were clinic owner Steven August Edson, 40, of Coral Springs; Bruno Balbi, 29; Francisco Carlos Balbi, 57; and Aline Balbi Leca, 31, all of Deerfield Beach.
Between April 2010 and July 2012, undercover agents visited the clinic numerous times. They were prescribed controlled substances on every visit, although none of the agents had conditions that would call for such medications, officials said.
Agents received 55 prescriptions totaling 2,968 oxycodone, 683 Soma, 170 prescription-strength ibuprofen, 135 hydrocodone, 30 methadone, 30 alprazolam (Xanax), 28 Klonopin, 28 Flexeril and 15 Valium pills.
A medical expert in pain management assessed each of the undercover visits. The expert determined that the examinations were below the ordinary standard of care and did not merit pain medications.
"[If] these folks [are] hiding behind a white jacket and diploma, it doesn't give them a pass if they are just trafficking in drugs," Trouville said.
Investigators estimate these doctors made up to $10,000 per week dispensing prescription medications, often for cash on the spot.
"It's simply a for-profit, moneymaking operation where undercover agents are going in and with very, very minimal, if any, medical examination, they are given very powerful controlled substances that are very dangerous," Trouville said.
"These folks are simply doing this for profit and greed," he added. "There's no intent for good medical practice there."
None of the doctors has a prior arrest record, Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti said.
"I still don't get it," he said. "A doctor goes to medical school for 10 years to learn how to save lives and ends up ruining lives and that's something we just can't tolerate."
Trouville vows there will be more arrests and says that is forcing some pill-peddling clinic operators and their physicians out of Florida.
"DEA has seen an increase in pill mills in places like Georgia, absolutely, because we've been pressuring here," Trouville said.
That pressure was being felt simultaneously in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and St. Lucie counties on Thursday. The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office announced the arrests of 12 people in those counties as part of another sting, Operation Keystone Express.
They were charged with racketeering, trafficking in oxycodone, and buying and selling Xanax, cocaine and marijuana. Investigators seized five firearms, 340 pills, marijuana and $3,726 in cash.
Two years ago, Florida was considered the nation's epicenter for pain clinics. They outnumbered Starbucks and McDonald's restaurants in Broward County, according to Lamberti.
"There were 78 McDonald's and there were 130 pill mills," he said. "But I'm happy to say today that you have a better chance of buying a Big Mac than you do a bottle of oxycontin."
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