Posted: Wednesday, August 2, 2017 – 11:40 AM
Prosecutors will target doctors and pharmacists in an effort to fight a growing epidemic of prescription painkiller and heroin abuse, the nation’s top law enforcement official said Wednesday.
The Department of Justice will mine health care data to identify doctors and pharmacists who are illegally overprescribing and distributing opioids, and 12 prosecutors will fan out around the country to charge offenders, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced.
The focus on health professionals is part of an effort to curb the abuse of drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, which officials say are highly addictive, and can lead to heroin abuse.
Prescription painkillers and heroin contributed to an estimated 60,000 overdose deaths in the United States in 2016, a 19 percent surge over the previous year, according to preliminary estimates.
“This will be the highest drug death toll, and the fastest increase in a drug death toll, in the history of this republic. This is not a trend we can sustain,” Sessions said in an address at a police academy in Midwestern state of Ohio.
An estimated two to three million people are hooked on prescription painkillers or heroin, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
Ohio is one of the hardest hit by overdose deaths, and one of several states suing pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids, claiming they falsely marketed the drugs as safe and downplayed their addictive qualities.
Sessions pointed to a number of recent examples of doctors being charged for illegally providing opioids, including a federal health care fraud case announced in July in which more than 50 doctors were implicated in a $1.3 billion scheme.
“If you are a doctor illegally prescribing opioids for profit or a pharmacist letting these pills walk out the door onto the streets based on prescriptions you know are obtained under false pretenses, we’re coming after you,” Sessions said.
States and local municipalities have been sounding alarms over the growing and highly lethal opioid epidemic in which addicts can resort to highly potent drugs such as the synthetic opioid fentanyl — which is some 50 times more potent than morphine and can kill on contact with skin.
The problem in Ohio is so severe that at one point this year a county coroner asked for a refrigerated storage trailer to accommodate all the bodies.
Speaking on behalf of a White House commission studying opioid abuse, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie on Monday urged President Trump to declare a national emergency.
“We have a 9/11-scale loss every three weeks,” mostly from opioid overdose deaths, Christie told CNN.
© Agence France-Presse