A year ago, as Las Vegas physician Victor Bruce pleaded guilty to trafficking in prescription painkillers, U.S. Attorney Daniel Bogden said four more unidentified doctors were targeted in a wide-ranging investigation.
Since then one doctor, Kent Swaine, 50, lost his license and was sentenced to five years of probation for fraudulently obtaining controlled substances for his own addiction by posing as one of his dead patients.
And the name of another doctor, pain specialist Daniel Batlan, has surfaced in court documents.
Bruce, 50, is now serving a 46-month sentence in a federal prison in California, and several other co-defendants involved in his drug distribution ring have pleaded guilty and are waiting to be sentenced.
Bogden said the overwhelming majority of Southern Nevada physicians are committed to the well-being of their patients, but his office is "equally committed" to prosecuting physicians who are not.
"Physicians have an ethical and professional responsibility to care for the patients they treat," Bogden said. "When they stop rendering care, and act as no more than a drug dealer with a lab coat, they are doing this community tremendous harm."
Bogden said he‘s pleased with the progress federal, state and local investigators have made in the past year and promises more action "to put illegal pill-pusher doctors in prison and out of business."
The United States is in the middle of a prescription painkiller overdose epidemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
"Since 1999, the amount of prescription painkillers prescribed and sold in the U.S. has nearly quadrupled, yet there has not been an overall change in the amount of pain that Americans report," the CDC says on its website. "Over-prescribing leads to more abuse and more overdose deaths."
Doctors who push pain medication on the streets give rise to still more abuse, according to authorities.
Bruce was accused of creating "ghost files" of patients at his pain management clinic, prescribing oxycodone under the phony names and selling the prescriptions to a street dealer identified as Robert Wolfe.
The 70-year-old Wolfe, known as the "old man," once claimed he had as many as 3,000 patients going to Bruce‘s office for oxycodone prescriptions. He was able to strike relationships with Bruce‘s staff to keep the prescriptions flowing.
Details of the investigation were revealed in a criminal complaint seeking the arrests of Wolfe and five associates in September 2013. The complaint is now sealed, but the Las Vegas Review-Journal obtained a copy from the electronic court filing system while it was public.
The complaint revealed that federal task force agents were able to infiltrate Wolfe‘s drug-trafficking organization and buy prescriptions in their undercover names on several occasions in 2013. The agents received help in the investigation from confidential sources.
Several doctors, including Bruce, were providing oxycodone prescriptions to the organization, which also had a local pharmacy in its fold, the complaint alleged.
During some undercover transactions Batlan was identified as the physician who prescribed the oxycodone, according to the complaint and recent plea agreements for at least two of Wolfe‘s associates arrested in September 2013. Batlan has not been charged.
Following a March 20, 2013, transaction with suspected Wolfe associate Millicent Epino, undercover officers had a pharmacist review the prescriptions, the complaint said.
"The written prescriptions were consistent with those previously obtained from Epino," the complaint alleged. "The listed prescribing physician was Dr. Daniel Batlan."
In the presence of the agents, the pharmacist called Batlan‘s office and during a conversation with a female employee "questioned the validity" of two of the four prescriptions written in the undercover officers‘ names, according to the complaint. The woman "verified the prescriptions were valid," and the pharmacist then filled them for the agents.
The conversation was secretly recorded for "evidentiary purposes," the complaint said.
Epino told undercover officers that she made arrangements for local doctors to write prescriptions for oxycodone to patients they never saw, the complaint alleged. She said all she needed was a valid driver‘s license or other identification.
The complaint and the other court documents do not provide additional new details about Batlan‘s connection to the case, and Bogden said Justice Department regulations prohibit him from confirming or denying whether Batlan is under investigation.
Batlan, who runs several pain management clinics in the Las Vegas Valley, said he knows nothing about the federal investigation.
"This is news to me," Batlan said. "That is not the activity I would ever become involved with."
Batlan would not answer questions, but said he runs a "clean" operation and is "extremely careful with pain medications." He also said he probably has the "most outstanding credentials" of any doctor in the state.
Records on file with the Nevada Board of Medical Examiners show Batlan was licensed in February 2000 and has no disciplinary actions against him.
Wolfe and four associates charged in the drug distribution ring have pleaded guilty in the past year. Epino has been charged but has not struck a plea deal.
Wolfe secretly entered his guilty plea in March and is cooperating with the FBI and Las Vegas police in a spinoff investigation into allegations his former lawyer tried to help him flee the country during the painkiller investigation. The lawyer, Ben Nadig, has denied wrongdoing.
Investigators have been tight-lipped about the Nadig investigation, as Wolfe prepares to be sentenced behind closed doors. His plea deal is under seal.