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There's no doubt that the opioid crisis has hit epidemic levels. By some estimates, the powerful prescription painkillers are claiming more lives in the U.S. than car accidents. The only question is how best to respond. Local law enforcement has attempted to crack down on illegal possession and sale, but it can be tricky when the drug itself is legal with a prescription. Some jurisdictions have created specialized opiate courts and some states are suing drug manufacturers for drowning their citizens in prescription pills, but both are after-the-fact remedies.
And now the Justice Department has announced the formation of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which will be focused on "investigating and prosecuting health care fraud related to prescription opioids, including pill mill schemes and pharmacies that unlawfully divert or dispense prescription opioids for illegitimate purposes."
"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," said Attorney General Jeff Sessions when he introduced the program at the Columbus Police Academy last week. "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."
The program will roll out in 12 states: Alabama, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
The DOJ's announcement came just after a nationwide sting netted 400 people charged with health care fraud scams totaling about $1.3 billion, much of which was for prescription and distribution of opioids. That investigation focused mainly on medical professionals involved in illegal distribution of opioids and other prescription narcotics, according to law enforcement officials, with some doctors writing out more prescriptions for controlled substances in one month than entire hospitals were writing.
The DOJ's focus seems to be to stem the tide of prescription opiates onto the street or into the hands of addicts. It may also help to examine the stream of opiates from drug manufacturers to doctors as well.