DOJ announces strike force to target opioid abuse in Appalachia, sets headquarters in Nashville11.06.18
The epidemic of opioid addiction persists across the country, demanding renewed efforts to combat the effects of drug abuse. Traditional methods of enforcement have failed to curb the spread of opioid addiction in the Appalachian region, so the Department of Justice is taking a new tack.
A little over a week ago, DOJ announced the formation of an Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, bringing together the resources and expertise of its Criminal Health Care Fraud Unit, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for nine federal districts in five states, and investigatory resources from the FBI, HHS-OIG and DEA. The Strike Force will cover the Appalachian region, including Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, and Northern Alabama.
Its mission is simple: identify and investigate health care fraud schemes in the Appalachian region and surrounding areas, and prosecute medical professionals, and others, involved in the illegal prescription and distribution of opioids.
The Strike Force is more than just lip service to an ever-growing problem. With this announcement, DOJ is clearly signaling its belief that illicit opioids are entering Appalachian communities through otherwise legitimate healthcare providers, and that those providers are breaking the law. This focus is more expansive than other opioid enforcement efforts and designed to directly target physicians, pharmacists and other medical professions who overprescribe or improperly prescribe opioids through otherwise legal channels. These efforts by DOJ represent a more aggressive approach to opioid enforcement and a new focus on medical professionals and pharmacists. Traditional enforcement has focused on illicit distribution networks and illegal street level suppliers. With everything the Department does, the practical results of this shift have yet to be seen.
What is clear, however, is that experienced and aggressive DOJ prosecutors will be looking for results with this new Strike Force. Healthcare professionals and pharmacists in the Appalachian region who prescribe opioids need to re-double efforts to ensure compliance and tamp down on overprescribing. Healthcare entities in the region that contract with or employ those providers also need to take notice. While criminal liability may not extend to an employer, the effects of an investigation can result in significant financial and reputational harm.
The hub for this coordinated effort will be the Nashville U.S. Attorney’s office, which will be adding three new prosecutors fully focused on opioid investigations and prosecutions. The Strike Force will also utilize advanced data analytics and support from DOJ’s criminal Healthcare Fraud Unit, and coordinate the efforts of the main federal investigative entities like the FBI, HHS-OIG, DOJ, as well as their various federal law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and IRS Criminal Investigation, and State Medicaid Fraud Control Units.
In addition, it is worth noting that the Nashville U.S. Attorney’s office is already well-known for the skill and experience of its civil healthcare fraud prosecutors. While this Strike Force is focused on criminal conduct, given the premium that the Department of Justice has been placing on coordination between civil and criminal prosecutors, there’s reason to expect that Nashville’s already robust healthcare fraud experience will be brought to bear on investigations.
While issues related to opioid addiction are not new to prosecutors and medical professionals in the Appalachian region, this unique Strike Force could have a potential ripple effect through the region. Or at least that seems to be DOJ’s hope.