The ever-growing and alarmingly deadly opioid epidemic sweeping the U.S. has triggered the formation of a three-year pilot program designed to combat health care fraud related to prescription painkillers, including pill mill schemes run by doctors and pharmacies for profit.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) new Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit will focus on the “middleman” of the prescription opioid epidemic by identifying and prosecuting individuals who are contributing to the crisis. These perpetrators illegally divert and dispense the drugs for illegitimate purposes and often bill Medicare, Medicaid, the VA, and other taxpayer-funded health care programs for them.
The Justice Department’s new program will operate units in selected federal districts in Alabama, California, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and West Virginia.
Prescription opioid addiction claims tens of thousands of lives every year and the epidemic is spreading at an unprecedented rate. In 2015, more than 52,000 Americans died from opioid abuse. Last year, however, that number leaped to about 60,000, according to preliminary estimates, with no slowdown in sight. Speaking at the Columbus Police Academy Aug. 4, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the opioid epidemic the “worst drug crisis in our history.”
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, increasing availability, higher purity, and lower price are all factors fueling the epidemic. Dealers are lacing heroin and cocaine with fentanyl, a drug 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin. As a result, the drugs on the street are now more powerful, more addictive, and more dangerous than ever. And they’re not just dangerous for users: even being accidentally exposed to just a few grains of fentanyl can kill a police officer or paramedic.
In addition to the human toll, the opioid epidemic is also dealing U.S. taxpayers an enormous financial blow. While street prices of the drugs go down, the economic costs are soaring. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, economists estimate that prescription addiction costs the U.S. economy some $78 billion a year.
“Remember, many of these drugs are paid for by private insurance, Medicaid, Medicare, and the VA,” U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said. “But what is even more devastating is the price we have paid in broken relationships, broken lives, and death rates the likes of which we have never seen before.”