The Department of Justice, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, announced charges last week against a total of 601 defendants in an action against health care fraud. Among those charged were 76 doctors, 23 pharmacists, and 19 nurses who were implicated in prescribing or distributing either opioids or other narcotics.
In a statement, Attorney General Jeff Sessions took a dim view toward those abusing their patients, saying: "Some of our most trusted medical professionals look at their patients -- vulnerable people suffering from addiction -- and they see dollar signs."
These medical personnel, they say, have contributed to this devastating epidemic, stealing tax dollars and flooding the streets with drugs. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar called the perpetrators "despicable and greedy people" in a press conference.
They point out that they've charged nearly 200 doctors, along with 220 other medical personnel, since January 2017 in crimes related to opioids. It may not sound like much - and it's certainly just a fraction of those committing these deadly acts - but the DoJ said that 16 of these doctors prescribed over 20 million pills illegally.
One defendant defrauded Medicare out of $112 million by giving out 2.2 million doses of fentanyl and oxycodone needlessly. Stopping even just a few of these doctors could well save countless lives. CNBC reports that more than 42,000 people died in the U.S. from opioid overdoses in 2016.
A recently released report by the Department of Health and Human Services' Inspector General said around 46,000 Medicare patients had been given high amounts of opioids last year, and 71,000 people were at risk of overdose or other misuse.
Another case involved a Texas pharmacy chain owner who worked with two other people to fill bulk orders for more than a million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, selling them to drug couriers and making millions of dollars.
They also took the opportunity to announce a new data analytics program known as the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which will be able to identify the most egregious opioid prescribers and those practioners whose patients are fatally overdosing. A dozen prosecutors have been assigned to the investigation and prosecution of opioid-related healthcare fraud.
It remains to be seen, however, how the pharmaceutical companies that market these drugs so aggressively will be held accountable for the part they've played in the problem. Attorney generals from six different states filed a lawsuit against OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma in May, accusing them of failing to disclose the risks of opioid addiction and saying that phrasing on the drug's label was not backed up by any clinical trials.
Texas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, Nevada, and North Dakota all took action against the pharmaceutical company, with Florida also suing a host of other drug makers. California, Massachusetts, and New York have similar lawsuits in the works. Sixteen other states and Puerto Rico have already filed lawsuits against Purdue, who said that they stopped promoting opioids to doctors following widespread criticism of their approach.
While these actions are certainly a step in the right direction, the opioid crisis is unlikely to disappear any time soon. As more healthcare professionals are held accountable for their roles, one can only hope that those working in the field will get the message that acting irresponsibly will not be tolerated.
Sources for this article include: