By Pat Anson, Editor
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has announced the formation of a special prosecution unit in the U.S. Justice Department to target opioid fraud and abuse.
The 12-member unit will not focus on the flourishing underground trade in heroin and illicit fentanyl, but will instead use healthcare data to identify doctors and pharmacies that prescribe or dispense large amounts of opioid pain medication, and prosecute those suspected of fraud or diversion.
“I have created this unit to focus specifically on opioid-related health care fraud using data to identify and prosecute individuals that are contributing to this opioid epidemic,” Sessions said in a speech at the Columbus Police Academy in Ohio.
“This sort of data analytics team can tell us important information about prescription opioids -- like which physicians are writing opioid prescriptions at a rate that far exceeds their peers; how many of a doctor's patients died within 60 days of an opioid prescription; the average age of the patients receiving these prescriptions; pharmacies that are dispensing disproportionately large amounts of opioids; and regional hot spots for opioid issues.”
For the next three years, Sessions said 12 experienced prosecutors will focus solely on investigating and prosecuting health care fraud related to prescription opioids, including pill mills and pharmacies that divert or dispense prescription opioids for illegitimate purposes.
The Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit will concentrate on 12 federal court districts around the country:
- Middle District of Florida
- Eastern District of Michigan
- Northern District of Alabama
- Eastern District of Tennessee
- District of Nevada
- Eastern District of Kentucky
- District of Maryland
- Western District of Pennsylvania
- Southern District of Ohio
- Eastern District of California
- Middle District of North Carolina
- Southern District of West Virginia
The Attorney General said preliminary data shows that nearly 60,000 Americans lost their lives to drug overdoses last year, but only in passing did he note that many of those deaths were caused by heroin and illicit fentanyl. In some states, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, more overdoses are linked to illicit fentanyl than any other drug. The CDC estimated that about one in four overdose deaths in 2015 involved prescription opioids.
Sessions said in recent years some government officials – who he did not identify -- have sent “mixed messages” about the harmful effects of drugs.
“We must not capitulate intellectually or morally to drug use. We must create a culture that is hostile to drug abuse. We know this can work. It has worked in the past for drugs, but also for cigarettes and seat belts. A campaign was mounted, it took time, and it was effective. We need to send such a clear message now,” Sessions said. “I issue a plea to all physicians, dentists, pharmacists: slow down. First do no harm.”
Last month the Justice Department announced the largest health care fraud takedown in history, resulting in the arrests of over 400 people around the country. Over 50 of the defendants were doctors charged with opioid-related crimes.
The department also announced the seizure and take down of AlphaBay – a large “dark net” website that hosted over 200,000 listings for synthetic opioids and other illegal drugs.
Sessions has long been a critic of marijuana legalization, but did not mention it in his Columbus speech. In May, he wrote a letter to congressional leaders asking them not to renew a federal law that prevents the Justice Department from interfering with state medical marijuana laws.