By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – Cracking down on the opioid crisis isn’t just happening in back alleys but inside Minnesota doctors’ offices.

WCCO’s Liz Collin visited our local Drug Enforcement Administration Office to see the complex cases agents put together to curb what can be deadly pain pill addictions.

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“We do have a significant problem and it is getting worse,” said DEA Special Agent Ken Solek.

As assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s Minneapolis, St. Paul District Office, Solek sees that problem every day. Considered the drug of a generation, opioid abuse killed more than 400 Minnesotans in 2017.

“At least in my opinion, the way I consider it is it’s a crime of violence,” said Solek.

At times, the crime comes from an unsuspecting place and from people we’re taught to trust.

“That’s exactly what this case was; it’s for profit,” said Solek. “They’re looking to make a lot of money.”

Dr. Elena Polukhin was convicted of writing prescriptions for opioids and pain creams people didn’t need for any medical purpose.

“That investigation took years,” said Solek.

Solek says the doctor worked with the owner of Bloomington’s Best Aid Pharmacy and a pharmacist who bought bulk powders they mixed themselves — selling them to Polukhin’s patients and submitting claims for reimbursement to Medicare and Medicaid at much higher prices.

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“Instead of billing for an actual end product type pill, they bill for the individual chemicals that are required to make that pill,” explained Solek.

Informants and undercover agents worked for two years to unravel the tangled web with wiretaps and multiple buys from the pharmacy.

“The amount of files is immense,” said Solek.

A much different approach than a street dealer.

“So whereas I can go out to a local dealer whose out on the street corner and make a buy or two, arrest that person, conduct search warrants as part of that operation and have it all wrapped up in the matter of a couple of weeks depending upon what’s going on — with a healthcare professional, the standard is much, much higher,” explained Solek.

In all, the feds believe it went on for at least four years.

Polukhin was ordered to pay more than $400,000 in restitution. And while they could never directly tie an overdose to the doctor, the DEA says there’s no telling the role her prescriptions have played in creating addicts — some who will never be back.

“They’re ending up dying and that’s the shame of it,” said Solek.

The DEA is planning to step up its presence in Duluth.

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Agents say more people overdose on opioids in that part of the state than anywhere else based on population.

Liz Collin