Updated at 10:28 p.m. ET on January 28, 2021.
Video collages by Sara Serna
You need to be a certain kind of person to want a reality-TV show about yourself. Jeffrey Young was one of those people. In 2016, Young, who was 42 at the time, invited a cameraman to shoot a pilot episode about his life as a nurse practitioner in Jackson, Tennessee. It doesn’t sound like much of a sell—a middle-aged man doling out medical advice in a city midway between Memphis and Nashville. But Young was eager to let the world know that he was no typical nurse practitioner.
Throughout Jackson, he had created for himself a reputation as a rock-and-roll renegade, happily showing off his piercings, tattoos, and goatee. He blasted heavy metal at his private practice and filled his Instagram feed with photos of himself smoking cigars. In his frequent social-media updates, he would drink and flip off the camera. Though he was not an M.D., Young christened himself “the Rock Doc.”
His vision was, evidently, to one day launch a reality series of the same name. The pilot footage—some of which Young posted to YouTube, and some of which I obtained from a person who was once close to Young—portrays the Rock Doc as a medical bad boy who’s willing to break free from the establishment to deliver real talk. In confessional-style interviews, Young seems to enjoy offending anyone who’s shocked by his approach. In one scene, he and his best friend, a pharmaceutical representative named John Kevin Phillips, broadcast themselves on the video-streaming app Periscope. With a heavy “Mercy me,” Phillips produces a pair of women’s panties from a bag. Young grabs them and takes a big whiff. “Let’s see here, she’s 23,” Young says. “Brown hair, green eyes, amazing body.” He smells them again. “And no education whatsoever,” Phillips jokes.
Defending himself in one of his on-camera interviews, Young acknowledges that he is “maybe a little untraditional” and that he “might like to drink a little bit after hours.” But, he says, “I’m very passionate about what I do … I work hard, but I play harder.” Young’s practice was, for a time, an inexpensive, reliable option for medical care in Jackson. The waiting room often overflowed with patients. Young put his name behind charity projects around town, took health insurance, and offered discounts for people who otherwise couldn’t afford care. He exhibited a certain tenderness as he filled syringes and sutured skin. For the cosmetically minded, he hosted alcohol-fueled Botox parties.
Young was, in short, a medical provider who acted like everyone’s best friend. As the cameraman who filmed the pilot told me, “Everywhere he went, it was like the Beatles.”
But the way in which Young gained some of these fans has become the focus of a federal court case. In April 2019, he was indicted on drug-trafficking charges, along with five other medical providers in Jackson, two of whom were the supervising physicians Young, as a nurse practitioner, was required to have. Young and the others were among dozens of doctors, nurses, and pharmacists arrested across seven states, targets in the nation’s largest takedown of medical providers related to prescription opioids. Prosecutors say Young used his rebellious persona to take advantage of patients, distributing highly addictive painkillers on demand and in large quantities for profit—and, often, his own sexual gratification. At least 50 women are thought to have come to the clinic to have sex with Young, some of them allegedly doing so in exchange for drugs, according to court testimony. (Young has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Through his attorney, he declined to comment on this and the other allegations in this story because of a gag order issued by the judge in the case.)
Over the past two decades, opioids have claimed more than 450,000 American lives. Though many of these deaths have been caused by street drugs such as heroin and illegally manufactured fentanyl, the nation’s opioid epidemic was sparked by the kinds of painkillers medical providers prescribed. The allegations against Young point toward an especially sordid type of abuse in which some doctors victimize patients twice: first by getting them addicted to drugs, and then by sexually exploiting them. In the past five years, at least 40 medical providers nationwide have been accused of exchanging sex for addictive drugs.
As so often happens with irresponsible medical providers, Young’s popularity in the community—along with an indifferent, slow-moving bureaucracy—allowed him to operate for half a decade despite initial warning signs and then multiple arrests and investigations. One other factor might help account for his long, illicit career: the sheer number of patients who stood by him, almost to the very end.
In an attempt to understand how Young got away with so much for so long, I’ve spent more than a year tracking his story, reading court documents, and examining his extensive digital footprint. In May 2019, shortly after Young was indicted, I traveled to Jackson to try to understand the place that gave rise to the Rock Doc. Then and over the ensuing months, I spoke with dozens of Young’s friends, enemies, alleged victims, and former co-workers. Many of the people I interviewed—including some of Young’s former patients and employees—asked to remain anonymous, often because they feared retribution at the hands of Young and his friends. Others accused me of seeking to discredit Young and slander his name. I visited Young’s clinic, but, through a staffer, he declined to speak with me.
Jackson, a city of about 70,000 people, looks like almost any midsize patch of America that sprang up sometime after the Pilgrims but before Microsoft. Downtown has an old-fashioned square, a few coffee shops striving for trendiness, and some suburban standbys—McAlister’s Deli, Kohl’s, Chili’s, Panera Bread—all connected by well-maintained roads and featuring black oceans of parking lots. Still, the city’s southernness peeks through. On my trip, I strolled by a glass case near the federal courthouse that held a large Bible opened to the Gospel of John. A restaurant called the Little Rebel displayed a Confederate flag. There is a friendliness, too, that one associates with the South. “We’re small enough where we still talk,” Jerry Gist, who was the mayor at the time, told me.
Jackson’s cheeriness, though, is at odds with the population’s somewhat grim physical health. Nearly a fifth of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, and many are afflicted with chronic diseases that often accompany the stresses of a low income. Obesity and diabetes are rampant; so is chronic pain. To deal with the latter, the city, like so many others in America, has become ever more reliant on opioids. A woman I spoke with who has worked for seven doctors’ offices in the area estimates that about three-quarters of medical visits there result in an opioid prescription. One patient she knew kept a cane in the trunk of her car and visited doctors’ offices with it in order to appear disabled so she could get more pills.
Throughout the opioid epidemic, a distressing number of doctors have seen a perverse opportunity in Americans’ suffering. Many medical providers are small-business owners who operate with limited oversight from authorities. Health care is one of the Jackson area’s most important industries, and West Tennessee Healthcare, which once employed Young, is the largest employer in the county.
Young grew up in Bethel Springs, a 700-person village near Jackson. In his early adulthood, he was a straitlaced young Republican who had short hair and wore a tie much of the time, one of his former co-workers told me. He graduated from Union University, an evangelical Christian school, in 1995, then earned a degree from the University of Tennessee College of Nursing in 2003. Young got married, then quickly got divorced, according to several people who knew him then. He remarried in 2006.
In 2012, Young was working at a cardiology practice in Jackson when, with a consultant named Rich Reitz and cardiologist named Dharmesh Patel, he set up a side business giving talks to doctors about treating heart attacks and strokes. Before long, the three men hatched a plan to found a network of health clinics that would check patients’ cholesterol levels and offer diet and exercise advice. The clinics’ aim would be to halt the parade of miseries—heart attacks, early deaths, hospital bills—brought on by the obesity epidemic.
In September 2014, Young, Reitz, and Patel opened their first clinic and called it PreventaGenix. Reitz says he and his girlfriend came up with the unwieldy name—a futuristic combination of prevent and genetics. (Patel did not respond to requests for comment.) The men each contributed $40,000 to the endeavor. The clinic sat on a quiet road crammed with other medical practices—a sleep doctor, a dentist, a nephrologist, an orthodontist—each in its own brick McMansion. PreventaGenix, with its Doric columns and grand portico, appeared to preside over the rest.
At first, Young seemed to Reitz like an affable, outgoing dad who loved rock and practiced medicine. But Young soon revealed a blustering personality that started to overwhelm the team project. Rachel Fullington, an early employee of Young’s, told me Young wanted the clinic’s atmosphere to be loose and fun, while the others wanted it to be more buttoned-up. Young seemed eager to hire lots of staff, but would end up firing them later.
A few months into their new venture, Reitz and Young were supposed to meet to discuss the running of the clinic. Instead, Young began by kicking Reitz out of the business, Reitz told me. Patel left soon after. Fullington, who was also let go, told me she got a threatening call from Young. “If you speak against me,” she remembers him saying, “you’re gonna regret it.”
Once his colleagues were out of the business, Young began crafting a persona based around rock music and hard living. He decked out PreventaGenix with psychedelic artwork and set the stereo to loud rock. On Instagram, photos tagged #preventagenix show Young on a motorcycle, surrounded by women. “Don’t worry, my tattoos don’t like you either,” one image reads.
No one could quite tell me who or what was responsible for Young’s transformation. Some speculated that it could have been drugs, alcohol, the prospect of fame, a divorce from his second wife the year after PreventaGenix launched, or a combination of all of them. Whatever the inspiration, his new persona was good for business. As Young collected more tattoos and befriended more local bands, he began to attract a certain clientele. “When you got all kinds of money,” said Jon Benjamin Sharp, a local musician who used to see Young around town, “you got all kinds of friends.” (Sharp made clear that he himself wasn’t a fan of Young’s.) Strippers, tattoo artists, and rock-band groupies saw a kindred spirit in Young and came to him as patients.
Phillips, Young’s best friend, would often stop by the clinic to hang out and drink, according to former employees. The next morning, the office manager, Kristie Gutgsell, would clean up after them. Sometimes the two men would fight, and broken glass would litter the floor. (Later, Phillips pleaded guilty to threatening a Drug Enforcement Administration agent who was investigating Young. Through his lawyer, Michael R. Working, Phillips did not return several requests for comment. In an email to The Atlantic, Working said that when it came to Phillips’s actions, “there was no direct threat. There was no statement even made to the Feds. Phillips popped off to a friend.”)
Young was late to the office almost every day. A former employee said that staffers had to go to Young’s house—another McMansion—to drag him out of bed, and that he would occasionally arrive at the clinic drunk. One employee recalled him sometimes being too drunk to see patients. They would shut off the power so they had an excuse to close the clinic on those days.
While Young’s antics could be a nightmare for his staff, his pool of patients increased as word about his practice spread. Young was a “people pleaser,” as one former employee described him. This ingratiating tendency allegedly extended to handing out prescriptions. Young became known for putting drugs into the hands of almost anyone who asked. Employees I spoke with said he eventually was seeing 50 to 85 patients a day, compared with about 20 for the average doctor, and most of them seemed to be on opioids. (Young’s attorney claimed in court that only about 25 percent of his patients were.) At Young’s practice, the quantities of opioids were “larger than many investigations that I conducted,” Shirley Pickering, a nursing-board investigator, later said in court.
Nurse practitioners have played a key role in Tennessee’s opioid epidemic. Opioid manufacturers such as Endo, the maker of Opana, and Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, targeted high-volume providers, in particular generalists, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants, “who generally had less expertise in pain management and were more receptive to marketing from sales consultants,” according to a lawsuit filed by the state of Tennessee against Endo in May 2019. (Endo denied the allegations.) Sometimes patients seeking opioids go to different providers until they find one who is willing to prescribe to them. And doctors—who work in what is, after all, a service profession—sometimes feel that it’s easier to pacify the patient than to push back. Otherwise, fledgling practices, in particular, risk losing patients.
If PreventaGenix staffers suspected that a patient was abusing drugs, they would sometimes try to “fire” the patient, by telling him or her not to return to the clinic. Though Young claimed that he also fired drug-seeking patients, Gutgsell testified in a deposition that he would meet some patients after hours and write them prescriptions anyway. He seemed, to his former employees, constitutionally unable to deny patients the pills they wanted, even if it was the last thing they needed.
Young’s second marriage was already in trouble by the time PreventaGenix launched, and after his divorce he quickly found new girlfriends. He would sometimes brag about having sex on his lunch break, sharing with his staff pictures of his conquests, three employees said. They learned to ignore it. At other times, PreventaGenix staffers would stumble upon a woman he had brought to the clinic the previous night.
Women were drawn to Young; he had a big house and was the first to buy everyone’s drink. PreventaGenix had a back door, and before long employees started noticing that some female patients would come in through it and go directly to Young’s office. Young seemed to have been expecting them. As many as three women a day allegedly came to his office for sex, though one former employee said Young might have had sex with more women after hours. Former employees speculated that he met the women in bars. Young would call these liaisons “nooners” or say it was “tap-that-ass Tuesday,” according to court testimony. (One employee, Karla Wright, testified later that she had never seen Young have sex with women at the office.)
Young’s sexual desires and need to please patients allegedly soon blurred together. He messaged at least five female patients about sex and filling prescriptions, prosecutors would later say, detailing the anonymized encounters in court. (They relied on messages obtained by agents during the investigations into Young.) When one patient told Young over Facebook Messenger that she was “in shitty health and about to jump off a bridge,” he prescribed her a cocktail of several different drugs, including fentanyl. “I accept all insurance,” he told her. “Will be glad to take the balance out of your ass.” He asked another patient, to whom he prescribed the opioid hydrocodone, to come in for a “checkup” the following day and “wear a short skirt and no panties.”
Young was sometimes even more direct. To a different patient, he wrote, “Come fuck me at my office right now.”
It is not illegal for doctors to have sex with their patients, though it’s considered unethical. Some of the doctors who have been accused of exchanging drugs for sex in recent years threatened patients that they would cut off their supply of painkillers if they didn’t gratify them. Young appeared to operate more subtly. One former employee told me it’s not clear whether Young was “exchanging” prescriptions for sex or just giving his many girlfriends the medications they asked for. “Thank you for taking care of me, not just the sex and satisfaction but the Soma too,” wrote one patient, referring to a muscle relaxer. Some female patients opted for a service the clinic offered that Young called “VIP status,” in which they paid $500 a year to skip the waiting room and get Young’s cellphone number, one former employee said. Other female patients’ checkout sheets simply said “No charge.”
Though he portrayed himself as harmlessly vulgar, Young could, in fact, get violent with women. He has been arrested several times, though not convicted, for assaulting women. According to police reports and court records, his second ex-wife, Dawn, claimed that throughout their relationship Young repeatedly pushed, threatened, and attempted to rape her. In 2011, the couple got in a fight while visiting Panama City Beach, Florida, and “it was determined that Young did throw, or shove, Mrs. Young from the bed to the floor,” the police report reads. (Dawn did not press charges at the time, and she declined to speak with me for this story.)
Some of Young’s dalliances with his patient-friends similarly took a dark turn. A woman I’ll call Stephanie developed a friendship with Young a few years ago when she was regularly seeing him for swelling in her throat. (Stephanie asked me to use a pseudonym for her because she doesn’t want her name associated with the case.) In addition to steroid shots, Young prescribed her oxycodone, Xanax, and Adderall for her various medical issues. Stephanie would accompany him to different clubs in the area, and wherever he went, she said, he was surrounded by hired bodyguards and friends she called “bouncers,” who were around for the times when he drank too much or flirted with women and got into fights with their boyfriends. Stephanie had been in an abusive relationship and dealt with a slew of other traumas. Being around Young made her feel emotionally safe, she said.
During one club night, Young bought Stephanie two drinks and his friends handed them to her. Minutes after finishing the second drink, Stephanie fell face-first onto the floor. Rather than call for help, Young “walked away and left me on the ground,” she told me. Two bouncers made sure she got home, but when she woke up in bed the next morning, her eyes were black, her nose was broken, and her mouth was bleeding. She doesn’t think Young was the one who drugged her, but she believes nevertheless that she was drugged. Even after this, she returned to Young as a patient.
She wasn’t the only patient to stick by him. Long after the criminal charges against him became known, many of Young’s patients and friends came to his defense—including some whom he had seemingly wronged. Lots of people refused to talk to me because they fear Young, but many others refused because they love him.
To date, none of the alleged victims in Young’s court case has come forward publicly to speak against him. One person with knowledge of the case gave me a list of several women who, the person believed, were having sex with Young in exchange for drugs. (Court records do not contain the names of Young’s alleged victims.) Of the women who returned my calls, none wanted to speak on the record under her real name, but all denied that Young had sexually abused them. One admitted that Young had flirted with her. Another compared Young to “a brother” and called my reporting “disrespectful.”
Young’s devotees have maintained for years that he was a great man on a noble mission, and that people who spoke against him didn’t understand his radical approach. Whenever he ran into trouble, his fans would fill his social-media feeds with pledges of support. “I am sick of people only judging you by what you do in your personal life,” one woman wrote on his Facebook page in September 2016, when Young was charged with assault after a woman claimed that he had screamed at her in the parking lot of his office. (The case did not result in a conviction.) Several people suggested suing for defamation a news station that reported on the incident.
Many people in Jackson seemed to see themselves in Young. They liked his plainspoken approach to medicine, a profession typically associated with jargon and elitism. They described Young to me as intelligent, as knowing almost as much as a doctor would know—or maybe even more. He found diseases, for example, that other doctors missed. One of his patients, Helena Louvaris, told me that Young “saved her life” by putting her on a diet plan. She appreciated that he asked about her grandkids. The “Rock Doc” affectations, Louvaris said, merely show that he’s different from other doctors. “He didn’t pull any punches,” she said. “He didn’t mind saying a curse word or two.”
Dan Reaves, a local radio host on whose show Young occasionally appeared as part of a marketing plan, described Young as medically gifted. It’s a shame, he told me, that Young got into so much legal trouble; think of all the people he might have helped. Several others dismissed the notion that Young could be sexually coercive. His friend Melanie Lupino, a local bartender, said he got girlfriends easily, so she was baffled by the notion that he would have to give people drugs to get sex. She doesn’t believe the allegations against him, and chalks them up to pure jealousy. It’s a small town; people talk.
Stephanie, who returned to Young’s clinic after the incident at the club, said Young helped her more than any doctor she’s ever seen. No one else seemed capable of treating all her problems—throat swelling, high blood pressure, attention issues. Though both she and Reaves said Young should be held accountable for anything he did wrong, Stephanie told me that she forgave him.
Young cared for all kinds of people, some of whom didn’t have money or health insurance. His Rock Doc persona helped him connect with patients who might never have felt comfortable in a traditional doctors’ office. Most doctor appointments, after all, average a nerve-racking 17 minutes, in which you spill out a complicated medical history and pray the doctor has a good solution. To have a medical provider be polite to you, accept you, maybe even dig through your charts to find the root cause of your ailments—it can be validating. Even if the treatment doesn’t work, it feels good to be listened to when you’re used to being ignored.
At the same time, building himself up as a renegade nurse practitioner seems to have allowed Young to sweep his faults under the rug of unconventionality. Of course other doctors don’t write as many prescriptions, the implication seemed to be. Other doctors don’t post pictures of themselves with motorcycles and scantily clad women, either.
Young’s story raises the question of where care crosses into harm. How far can medical providers go in giving patients what they want? Despite some patients’ praise for Young, the evidence that he routinely walked far over that line remains alarming. And the consequences might have gone beyond sexual abuse and addiction.
In 2014, Young began seeing a patient identified as “MY” in a letter from Tennessee’s department of health—a letter that would ultimately lead to a nursing-board hearing for Young. MY came to PreventaGenix complaining of lower-back pain and numbness in his left arm, and asked for refills of pain medications. Without doing a physical exam, Young diagnosed MY with chronic lower-back pain and anxiety, the letter details. He refilled MY’s prescriptions for Percocet and Valium, and also prescribed him hydrocodone. Throughout Young’s year-long treatment of MY, Young failed to conduct pill counts, consult a state database meant to monitor the dispensing of controlled substances, and discuss with MY the risks of combining these drugs, according to the document. In August 2015, Young prescribed MY what the letter calls a “dangerous combination” of an opioid, a benzodiazepine, and a muscle relaxant.
MY died on August 25, 2015, from an apparent drug overdose. He was found in his bedroom, where the ambulance service discovered an empty syringe under his pillow and empty pill bottles on his bedside table that had been filled that month. Some of the pills had been prescribed by Young. The cause of death, according to the letter, was “a probable cardiac event due to polypharmacy, or the simultaneous use of multiple drugs.”
Rather than suffer any real consequences for his allegedly reckless prescribing, Young continued to work as a medical provider for years. Over that time, his online following grew. Having hordes of fans seems to have allowed Young to buy more deeply into his own rock-and-roll fantasy, which in turn gave him the confidence to broadcast his life through even more videos and updates. “If a patient would text him a compliment, he would blast it all over Facebook,” one former employee told me. Young had an active channel on Periscope, where he and Phillips drank and waxed philosophical. “Am I a misogynist, or do women just like rough sex?” Young asks himself in one video. In another, he totters around with an empty bottle of bourbon and pans the camera over to Phillips, who is asleep on the couch. “He’s so cute … that’s my brother and my best friend,” Young says, giving Phillips a gentle kiss.
Young was by no means nationally or even regionally known. His followers across social-media accounts numbered in the low thousands—higher than a casual user’s, but a trifle compared with even a C-list celebrity’s fan base. Young did seem to be famous enough in Jackson, however, to reinforce his own grand vision of himself. His small fiefdom of followers created a mini echo chamber, feeding back approval and encouragement. This social-media stardom appears to have helped inoculate him against concerns that his loose approach to medicine could harm anyone.
Young’s pursuit of fame culminated in his attempt to launch the Rock Doc television show. The cameraman who shot the pilot, who requested anonymity because he doesn’t want to be associated with Young’s case, heard about Young through a mutual friend and visited him several times to shoot footage for what he hoped could become a reality show. He gave Young total control over what was recorded. Though Young at first just seemed to go along with the project, he grew more invested after the first visit, the cameraman told me. The resulting videos are typical scenes from a medical practice—people donning gloves, waiting in chairs—spliced together over a heavy-metal soundtrack. The camera follows Young as he treats patients, talks on a local radio station, dances with women at a club, and brags about drinking.
The scenes are meant to serve as a testament to the effectiveness of Young’s “work hard, play harder” ethos. Supposedly candid confessions from Young about his life are interspersed with complimentary interviews with patients. An obese man explains that Young helped him with his swollen leg. “I swear he didn’t look at my leg for 30 seconds, and he told me exactly what it was,” he says. The man says if he were ever shot, he would go to Young before going to the hospital.
But tonally, much of the footage betrays him. Young cries at his son’s fifth-grade graduation, then explains that he’s so emotional because his nurses are having their periods. Young and Phillips, both longtime musicians, reveal that they’re working on some rap songs about Young’s “haters,” then ponder how to do gang signs.
People who criticized Young swiftly became his enemies. “You may not like my rock and roll, you may not like my piercings, you may not like my sexy-ass beard, but you know what? You can all suck my dick!” he yells at the camera in one Periscope video, a stethoscope around his neck and a cigar in his hand. He raises a glass filled with red wine, as if in a toast. When one video was apparently manipulated by one of his detractors and posted online, Young threatened whoever might have done it. “Trust me, I got people,” he says to the camera. “We’re tracing your fucking account now, so you better be prepared to reap the whirlwind of your bullshit.”
As he gathered followers, Young began to deploy his social-media presence to hunt down and intimidate his former employees and ex-friends, some of whom told me they felt threatened by Young and his followers. Some sought counseling, slept under their beds, or carried guns. One former patient who had a falling-out with Young told me he or someone associated with him attacked her on the internet forum Topix, calling her a “whore” and a “drunk.” She said her home address and photos of her adult daughters were posted on the site, along with rape threats directed at her daughters. (Topix has since been shut down.) The former patient told me she became afraid to leave her house. “We can’t live if he’s out,” she said. “We’ll all be killed.”
It helped that Young had prominent friends he could call on for help. Some of his patients were police officers whom he would occasionally ask for favors. In February 2016, he texted one of his opioid patients, a police officer named Jay Green. Young wanted information about one of his enemies. “I need you to find this fucker,” he wrote, according to court testimony later reported by The Jackson Sun. (Green, who has since cut ties with Young, would not comment on this when I reached him, but he told the Sun that he asked another officer to look up the information.)
Eventually Shirley Pickering, the nursing-board investigator who was looking into the allegations against Young, also grew terrified of him. She would get phone calls at her house, answer, and hear only strange whispers, she said in a court hearing. She would wake up to find that all her car doors had been opened overnight. She once saw someone running across her yard into the woods.
“Do you feel safe with Mr. Young being out there?” a prosecutor on the case, Andrew Pennebaker, asked Pickering in court.
“I am very nervous about it,” she replied.
How was a nurse practitioner whose behavior was so outrageous allowed to treat patients for so long? Despite the accumulation of evidence suggesting that Young was running his practice recklessly and endangering patients, he remained licensed to write prescriptions for five years after PreventaGenix opened its doors. Officials were well aware of the allegations surrounding him over this period: The state’s health department had received at least 13 complaints about Young since 2015. But none of these barred the Rock Doc from getting drugs into the hands of patients.
Years before the launch of PreventaGenix, Young had already been accused of abusing his nurse-practitioner license. By 2012, Young was allegedly supplying testosterone without a clear medical reason to high schoolers who wanted to bulk up. One young man told me he went to Young’s house that year to pay cash for a vial, knowing that a traditional doctor would be unlikely to prescribe testosterone to a healthy teenage boy. (Four years later, the health department received a complaint about this testosterone sideline, but the complaint was never assigned to an investigator, according to Pickering.) Around 2013, Young allegedly prescribed hydrocodone, a benzodiazepine, and Adderall for a patient whose visits he described as a “concierge-type thing,” Pickering said in court. Young failed to diagnose the man’s hypertension and overprescribed to him, according to court testimony, and later the patient suffered a stroke.
The lack of oversight in the Young case is in keeping with practices seen throughout the opioid crisis. The entire epidemic has been an unending story of doctors, pharmaceutical executives, and public officials blithely ignoring signs of danger. There’s clear evidence that opioid manufacturers knew the drugs were addictive, yet they marketed them aggressively anyway. (The drugmaker that is most often blamed for the epidemic doesn’t agree with this assessment: “Suggesting that activities that last occurred more than 16 years ago are responsible for today’s complex and multifaceted opioid crisis is deeply flawed,” a Purdue Pharma spokesperson, Robert Josephson, said in a statement to The New York Times for a story on this issue.)
Early in the epidemic, Purdue gave doctors OxyContin fishing hats and swing-music CDs to encourage them to prescribe more of the drug. American doctors went on to prescribe opioids at much higher rates than their counterparts in other countries. The resulting addictions were blamed on reckless patients, rather than the fundamental chemistry of the opioids themselves.
Young benefited from an almost reflexive societal trust in the medical profession. Multiple surveys show that people tend to trust health-care workers more than they trust many other professionals, including police officers and clergy members. “Nurses are consistently rated higher in honesty and ethics than all other professions that Gallup asks about, by a wide margin,” the polling firm said in a January 2020 survey. Many people trust doctors even when they’re harmed by their treatment, and a 2008 study found that people are more likely to spend time researching a new employer or a new car than vetting a new surgeon. At the beginning of the opioid epidemic, “the autonomy of doctors to prescribe opioids was almost limitless,” Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University professor who researches mental-health policy, says.
Similarly, Young appeared to get the benefit of the doubt from virtually everyone. States largely rely on medical boards to regulate practitioners, but these entities have a reputation for leniency. They are often too under-resourced and understaffed to keep a watchful eye on all medical providers. Even when they do, the boards are mainly composed of doctors’ and nurses’ peers, who can be reluctant to throw the book at one of their own, says Rebecca Haw Allensworth, a Vanderbilt University law professor who has studied medical boards. Patients, meanwhile, don’t always know that medical boards exist in the first place, or that they can complain to them if they’ve been wronged, Lisa Robin, the chief advocacy officer for the Federation of State Medical Boards, says.
Tennessee’s nursing board, the main agency that has power over nurse practitioners in the state, launched its investigation into Young within a year of PreventaGenix opening. But the board has a history of letting suspicious providers go on practicing for years. It moved so slowly in punishing drug-addicted nurses that some were able to get new jobs and steal narcotics while under investigation, an eastern Tennessee news station, WJHL, found in 2016. (In response to a request for comment, a health-department spokesperson noted that, according to state law, the department can’t suspend medical licenses without first giving practitioners the opportunity to demonstrate compliance regarding the allegations against them. This requirement is waived, however, in cases where “public health, safety, or welfare imperatively requires emergency action.”)
As the nursing board’s investigation of Young inched along, another agency launched its own probe into the Rock Doc. In July 2016, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation began looking into allegations that Young was overprescribing opioids. One agent testified in court that the bureau had uncovered Facebook messages such as one sent to Young in August 2016 by someone known in court as “SW”: “My girl for eight years is an addict … You write her any more scripts you’re going to kill her, man.” Meanwhile, many of Young’s patient charts had allegedly stopped being monitored: One supervising physician came in once, reviewed Young’s charts, and withdrew from the supervising agreement immediately based on what he saw. Pharmacists began to refuse to fill his prescriptions.
In November 2016, the health department threatened to file charges against Young before the board of nursing. The department suggested that he surrender his license in order to resolve the matter quickly, but according to a report from The Tennessean and The Jackson Sun, a defiant Young rejected that offer. His case before the nursing board stalled for two more years.
The first move of any significant consequence for Young came in early 2017, when the DEA raided the clinic. One January morning, officers swarmed the road outside the PreventaGenix building, guns drawn. They entered the office and ordered the clinic’s staffers to lie on the floor. The agents seized about 350 of Young’s patient charts and every computer in the office, according to Gutgsell, the former office manager, and the notice of seizure states that about 10,000 individual doses of hydrocodone were also taken. (The DEA declined to comment on Young’s case for this story.) The agency also searched Young’s cellphone. On it, they found evidence of Young having sex with many different women, one of whom appeared to be motionless and had her eyes closed, a DEA agent testified later.
After the raid, Young spent the night in jail on an outstanding warrant, and PreventaGenix closed soon after. But that did not put a stop to Young’s ambitions. He soon opened a new clinic, which he called GeneXis Health. The clinic mostly offered cosmetic treatments, and it was located in a strip mall in a more industrial part of town, next to a chiropractor and a place called Gene’s Tire & Wrecker. Young would continue to prescribe drugs there for two more years.
The allegations against Young seemed to take a toll on him, though. Like many actual rock stars, he flamed out on his own extravagant lifestyle. Toward the end of PreventaGenix, the nurse practitioner so many people had praised deteriorated, according to former employees. Patients would spend an hour or two in the waiting room, only to get a rushed exam and prescription. Young began arriving at the clinic smelling rancid, with greasy hair, and the clinic’s money problems mounted. Doctors’ offices make money by billing insurance companies for the services the providers perform, but it was hard to do this at PreventaGenix because the documentation for Young’s visits was so shoddy. He would try to squeeze in even more patient visits each day—sometimes well over 50, former employees say—and would either forget to document services or would document services he hadn’t provided.
Young had also allegedly begun siphoning off $100 almost every day from the clinic for his personal expenses, according to former employees. The cost of producing the Rock Doc pilot, about $2,000, was entirely paid for by the clinic, Gutgsell claimed in a deposition. When PreventaGenix closed, Young was alleged to have failed to pay part of the unemployment insurance, federal tax withholdings, and final payroll for the clinic, according to a lawsuit filed by his former partners, Reitz and Patel.
After PreventaGenix shut down, Young told his patients on Facebook that they could contact Reitz and Patel’s attorney to get their medical records. Once again, there was an outpouring of support. “I can’t wait to start being your patient again,” one woman wrote.
After he opened the new clinic, Young’s sexual behavior with patients allegedly continued, as did the town’s willingness to ignore it. In 2018, a woman told police that Young put his hands down her pants during an office visit, but that apparently led to nothing. (“There were different Jeff Youngs in [the Records Management System] and I had very little information so he was not added to the report,” the police report states.) According to a medical-board report, one employee recalled Young having sex in his office with a patient who appeared to be drugged; when Young left, she was passed out on the couch. In March 2019, the health department received a complaint that Young had inappropriate sexual contact with patients, and sent him a letter of warning without disciplining him. (Young has denied that he’d had sex with the patient who appeared to be drugged.)
November 7, 2018, marked the beginning of legal repercussions for Young. About four years after its investigation began, the nursing board finally held a hearing to consider his fate. Young neither “admits nor denies the following allegations,” Tracy Alcock, a lawyer with the state health department, said at the hearing, but he “acknowledges that the department’s proof would show the following”: From August 2013 to November 2016, Young prescribed controlled substances in amounts and for durations that “were not medically necessary, advisable, or justified for a diagnosed condition.” The board put his license on probation for two years, during which time he could not prescribe certain Schedule II or Schedule III controlled substances, including drugs such as oxycodone, fentanyl, Vicodin, and Adderall. He would still be allowed to prescribe testosterone and cough syrup with codeine, however. In 2020, had he not been indicted, he would have been allowed to petition to have his prescribing privileges reinstated, as long as he agreed to extra monitoring.
Though the system came slowly for Young, during the years he was being investigated America underwent a national reckoning about opioids. In the past two decades, overdoses involving prescription opioids have killed more than 232,000 people—the population of Jackson several times over—and the major players in the epidemic are finally being held to account. The manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids have been sued by dozens of states and municipalities for the damage they’ve allegedly caused. In recent years, the Justice Department has started coming for unscrupulous doctors and pharmacists, too. Though criminal cases against doctors and nurse practitioners like Young are still relatively rare, they are growing more common.
Ultimately, what hastened Young’s downfall is that some of the female patients asking him for drugs were undercover officers. On April 17, 2019, officials swept through Appalachia, charging 53 medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, and pharmacists. Young was among them. His indictment implicated him and two of his former supervising physicians, Alexander Alperovich and Andrew Rudin, and alleged that Young’s “motives in prescribing controlled substances to his patients were often to obtain money, notoriety, and sexual favors.” Alperovich and Rudin, the indictment claims, “accepted money derived from the proceeds of the conspiracy in exchange” for their “purported supervision.” (Both have pleaded not guilty. Rudin’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Alperovich’s lawyer declined to comment.)
At this point, the people of Jackson knew the full extent of officials’ suspicions about Young. Yet he still attracted patients at GeneXis prior to his detention hearing in May 2019. Weeks after the indictment made national news, the clinic was packed with people coming and going, one woman who worked in a building with a view of the parking lot told me. (She did not want to be named for fear of jeopardizing her business.) When I visited the clinic shortly before the hearing, Young had just finished up with a patient. A staffer, who declined to talk on the record, asked me why I was writing about him. “This is a bunch of bull crap,” she said.
For the occasion of his detention hearing, Young wore a cerulean suit and a comb-over. His black shirt collar didn’t quite hide the tattoos on the back of his neck. As the court spent two days scrutinizing his years of alleged misdeeds, he sat mostly silently. Occasionally he would glare at his ex-wife Dawn, who was in the gallery. “By the end of this hearing, you will be asking what on Earth took the medical board so long,” Pennebaker, the prosecutor, said in court. After the hearing, Young was jailed pending his trial, which is currently scheduled to be held this spring. Part of the judge’s reasoning was that Young’s Facebook posts showed “a propensity for violence.”
Young continued blogging from jail, somehow managing to write a few posts for a website that promotes medical providers’ rights to prescribe opioids freely. In one post, tagged with “American holocaust,” he writes, “I have always been a survivor and have scars of significance to symbolize thus, and this is where they have underestimated me and my resolve.”
In March 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic broke out, Young petitioned the court to be released to house arrest because he was on immunosuppressive drugs for a kidney transplant he had years ago and was concerned about the risk of complications from COVID-19. The judge denied this request, in part because, he wrote, “Young has chosen to not wear a mask or practice social distancing consistently in jail.”
In September, Gutgsell, Young’s former office manager, pleaded guilty to federal charges for her involvement in prescribing opioids without a legitimate medical purpose.*
With Young at least temporarily behind bars, some of his fans seem to have reached a point of disillusionment with the Rock Doc—or, at least, a point of fatigue. “Watching this makes me really sad,” one YouTube user commented on the Rock Doc pilot in 2019. “Dang, Jeff … What happened?” Helena Louvaris and Melanie Lupino, two of Young’s staunch defenders, both declined to speak with me when I called them back to see if they still supported him after he was jailed. Meanwhile, LeAnn Naylor, the secretary of Jackson’s former mayor, first told me over email that she stood by Young after his hearing, but then recently said she’d started having doubts because Young would frequently hit on her adult daughter.
However, many of Young’s online supporters have remained loyal. When the local news station, WBBJ, posted a story about Young’s case on Facebook, the usual chorus of defenders raised their voices. “He’s a great doctor and never has he acted any way towards me but professional!” one woman wrote. “He’s prescribing drugs that people want,” another man added. “So what? Who cares?” All throughout the past few months, Young’s fans have papered his Facebook wall with loving messages. “Never give up … God is full of second chances,” one woman wrote. Another said, “I was thinking of you today and how much you have helped me.”
We won’t know if Young is guilty of everything the government says he is, or how much additional time, if any, he will serve, until later this year. But the allegations against him point toward what can be permissible, even celebrated, in a medical system built on profit. Whether or not Young is convicted, the perverse incentives for doctors to see patients for short visits and to prescribe too many unnecessary drugs will remain. The opioid epidemic—which appears to only be getting worse—has made clear that wherever pain exists in America, grifters will follow.
* This article has been clarified to more accurately convey the details of Gutgsell's plea.