By Pat Anson, Editor
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has arrested 28 people and revoked the registrations of over a hundred others in a nationwide crackdown that targeted prescribers and pharmacies that dispense “disproportionally large amounts” of opioid medication.
For 45 days in February and March, a special team of DEA investigators searched a database of 80 million prescriptions, looking for suspicious orders and possible drug thefts.
The so-called “surge” resulted in 28 arrests, 54 search warrants, and 283 administrative actions against doctors and pharmacists. The DEA registrations of 147 people were also revoked – meaning they can no longer prescribe, dispense or distribute controlled substances such as opioids.
The DEA said 4 medical doctors and 4 medical assistants were arrested, along with 20 people described as "non-registrant co-conspirators." The arrests were reported by the agency's offices in San Diego, Denver, Atlanta, Miami and Philadelphia.
“DEA will use every criminal, civil, and regulatory tool possible to target, prosecute and shut down individuals and organizations responsible for the illegal distribution of addictive and potentially deadly pharmaceutical controlled substances,” Acting DEA Administrator Robert Patterson said in a statement.
“This surge effort has demonstrated an effective roadmap to proactively target illicit diversion of dangerous pharmaceuticals. DEA will continue to aggressively use this targeting playbook in continuing operations.”
The DEA surge is the latest in a series of steps taken by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to crackdown on opioid prescribing. Last August, Sessions ordered the formation of a new data analysis team, the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, to focus solely on opioid-related health care fraud.
Sessions also assigned a dozen prosecutors to “hot spots” around the country where opioid addiction is common. Last week the DEA said it would add 250 investigators to a task force assisting in those investigations.
Although overdose deaths are primarily caused by illicit drugs such as fentanyl, heroin and cocaine, federal law enforcement efforts appear focused on opioid prescribing. Doctors and pharmacists are easier to target because they are already in DEA databases, as opposed to drug dealers and smugglers operating in the black market.
As PNN has reported, the data mining of opioid prescriptions -- without examining the full context of who the medications were written for or why – can be problematic and misleading.
For example, last year the DEA raided the offices of Dr. Forest Tennant, a prominent California pain physician, because he had “very suspicious prescribing patterns.” Tennant only treated intractable pain patients, many from out-of-state, and often prescribed high doses of opioids because of their chronically poor health -- important facts that were omitted or ignored by DEA investigators.
Tennant has not been charged with a crime and denied any wrongdoing. Nevertheless, he retired this month due to the stress and uncertainty caused by the DEA investigation. About 150 of his patients now have to find new doctors, not a simple task in an age of hysteria over opioid medication.
In an interview with AARP, Sessions defended the use of data mining to uncover health care fraud.
“Some of the more blatant problems were highlighted in our Medicare fraud takedown recently where we had a sizable number of physicians that were overprescribing opioid pain pills which were not helping people get well, but instead were furthering an addiction being paid for by the federal taxpayers. This is a really bad thing,” Sessions said.
“It’s a little bit like these shysters who use direct mail and other ways to defraud people. They will keep doing it until they’re stopped. In other words, if we don’t stop them, they will keep finding more victims and seducing them.”