Federal Appalachian strike force charges 60 in massive opioid sting

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Original story posted on: April 24, 2019

Most of those accused of wrongdoing are medical professionals.

The national opioid crisis has hit the heart of Appalachia particularly hard, and federal authorities are pulling out the stops in fighting it.

U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex M. Azar II, together with a host of partners, this week announced that they were charging 60 people across 11 federal districts – including 31 doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurse practitioners, and seven other licensed medical professionals – for their alleged participation in the illegal prescribing and distributing of opioids and other dangerous narcotics and for related healthcare fraud schemes. 

“The opioid epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region. But the Department of Justice is doing its part to help end this crisis,” Barr said in a statement. “One of the Department's most promising new initiatives is the Criminal Division's Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid (ARPO) Strike Force, which began its work in December – just four months later, this team of federal agents and 14 prosecutors has charged 60 defendants for alleged crimes related to millions of prescription opioids. I am grateful to the Criminal Division, their U.S. Attorney partners, and to the members of the strike force for this outstanding work that holds the promise of saving many lives in Appalachian communities.”

Joining in on the announcement were Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division; ten U.S. Assistant Attorneys representing as many districts; Executive Assistant Director Amy Hess of the FBI’s Criminal, Cyber, Response, and Services Branch; Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Gary L. Cantrell of the HHS Office of Inspector General (HHS-OIG); Assistant Administrator John J. Martin of the DEA Diversion Control Division; and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Deputy Administrator and Director of the Center for Program Integrity (CPI) Alec Alexander.

The officials said that the newly filed charges targeted individuals contributing to the opioid epidemic, with a particular focus on medical professionals involved in the unlawful distribution of opioids and other prescription narcotics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 130 Americans die every day of an opioid overdose. 

“We will not stand by and allow the harmful and oftentimes deadly practice of over-prescribing highly addictive drugs to continue unchecked,” Hess said. “The FBI will pursue medical personnel who misuse their positions of trust to blatantly disregard others’ very lives for their own financial gain.”

The ARPO Strike Force operates out of two hubs, based in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky and Nashville, Tenn. regions. The various individuals and entities that make up the Strike Force work closely with other state and federal law enforcement agencies, including the various state Medicaid Fraud Control Units.

The charges announced this week were connected to totals of 350,000 prescriptions amounting to 32 million pills distributed in the states of Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

HHS also noted that in less than a year, since June 2018, it has excluded over 2,000 individuals from participation in Medicare, Medicaid, and all other federal healthcare programs, including more than 650 providers excluded for conduct related to opioid diversion and abuse.

“It is also vital that Americans struggling with addiction have access to treatment and that patients who need pain treatment do not see their care disrupted, which is why federal and local public health authorities have coordinated to ensure these needs are met in the wake of this enforcement operation,” Azar said. “Law enforcement and public health leaders will continue to work hand in hand to end this crisis that has hit Appalachia hard and steals far too many lives across America every day.”

To review the charges in their entirety, go online to https://www.justice.gov/opa/documents-and-resources-april-17-2019-press-conference.

 

Mark Spivey

Mark Spivey is a RACmonitor contributor who has been writing and editing articles about federal oversight of healthcare for nearly a decade. He can be reached at mcspivey@hotmail.com.

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