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Rep. Burchett calls for tougher sentencing rules after accused pill mill doctor may avoid prison time after plea deal

Oneida Doctor David Bruce Coffey prescribed pills at four times the national average, the DEA said.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An East Tennessee congressman issued a call for tougher sentencing laws after a 10News investigation uncovered a doctor accused of distributing nearly five million addictive medications plans to plead guilty to illegally prescribing 60 pills.

Rep. Tim Burchett, who recently introduced legislation to impose life sentences on international fentanyl traffickers, said Dr. David Bruce Coffey's plea deal isn't justice and called upon a federal judge to examine it closely before sentencing.

"The doctor is a dirtbag," Burchett said. "If he’s guilty, lock him up and throw away the key." 

The Drug Enforcement Agency accused Coffey, of Oneida, Tenn., of prescribing 4.9 million addictive pills over eight years. More than one million of the pills were issued to residents of McCreary County, KY, the DEA said — enough for every man, woman, and child there to have more than 50 pills.

"I don’t have any sympathy for those folks," Burchett said of doctors like Coffey. "I have too many friends who have held their dead kids when they’re overdosed."  

Congressman Hal Rogers (R-Somerset) declined to comment specifically about the Coffey case, but said in a statement, "We cannot expect to effectively combat the nation's drug abuse epidemic when justice falls short."

"The DEA has invested a lot of time and hard work to shut down pill mills and hold illicit drug dealers accountable, including those wearing white coats who forsake their oath to ‘first, do no harm.'" Rogers said. 

Coffey’s crimes carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison. But he could face less than a year in prison under the terms of the plea deal, defense attorney T. Scott Jones told 10News in January. 

"I think that [Coffey] is fortunate with regards to what I’ve seen in the plea agreement concerning the outcome and ought to be very thankful," said Jones, who reviewed the plea agreement, but is not connected to the case.

Coffey's attorney, Gregory P. Isaacs, declined to comment on the case because the plea agreement is still a pending federal matter. A judge has yet to accept the plea and sentence Coffey.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Southeastern Kentucky also declined to comment.

Coffey's physician's license expired in October 2021, records show. His clinic burned to the ground in a suspicious fire soon after the allegations became public. The clinic announced in July 2020 that it would permanently close the following month. 

RELATED: Doctor in pill mill investigation sues insurance company after 'suspicious' clinic fire

A county hit hard

The drug crisis in McCreary County has "destroyed families," Judge Executive Jimmie Greene said — and he said he saw firsthand how Coffey helped fuel it. 

Before he was elected county leader, he worked for a medical transportation company and frequently drove clients from his county of 18,000 people across the state line to Coffey's clinic. 

"Some had various ailments, the majority of them were going down there to seek pain medication," he said. 

When he'd arrive, Greene saw a chaotic scene at the small clinic: a long wait in a packed waiting room with people milling around in the parking lot. 

"I had a client tell me one time that it was an aggravation because he had to be there for half a day, but it was well worth it because he got whatever he needed," Greene said. 

In a sworn affidavit, undercover DEA agents described seeing a similar scene and painted a picture of a streamlined operation that formed the primary drug supply for traffickers in areas hard hit by the opioid epidemic.

The DEA said Coffey's Scott County clinic was the primary supplier of pills for three drug trafficking organizations in Southeastern Kentucky. He prescribed at a rate four times higher than the national average, the DEA said.

"That’s just ridiculous," Greene said he thought when he heard about the plea deal. "That is such a travesty of justice."

In a statement, Rep. Rogers—who co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Prescription Drug Abuse—underscored the impact of the drug crisis in his area: 

"Our communities have been saturated with a harmful amount of powerful, addictive painkillers over the years, and every life that we lose to a preventable overdose is one too many," he said in a statement. 

The head of McCreary's anti-drug task force said his group runs out of opioid overdose-reversing Narcan every year.