Attorney General Jeff Sessions targets medical professionals in 12 U.S. opioid epidemic ‘hot spots’

Jeff Sessions
In speeches last week. U.S., Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke about efforts to go after medical professionals who contribute to the opioid epidemic. (Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The U.S. attorney general isn’t letting up on efforts to go after doctors and other medical professionals who overprescribe opioids.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions reiterated in speeches in West Virginia on Thursday and Pennsylvania on Friday that he is expanding efforts of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which was unveiled last month and is designed to combat the overprescribing of opioid painkillers that have contributed to the country’s opioid epidemic.

“I have assigned 12 experienced prosecutors to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting opioid-related healthcare fraud cases in a dozen 'hot-spot' locations around the country, places where they are especially needed,” he said. The locations include both southern West Virginia and western Pennsylvania.

The other states include Ohio, Florida, Michigan, Alabama, Tennessee, Nevada, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina and California.

Sessions said the prosecutors will be working with the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services to target and prosecute doctors, pharmacies and medical providers who have profited from the epidemic.

The Detection Unit is using data to track anomalies in the disbursement of prescription opioids to find those who are fueling the epidemic, he said.

“The data analytics team will help us to find the telltale signs of opioid-related healthcare fraud by identifying statistical outliers,” Sessions said. “They can tell us which physicians are writing opioid prescriptions at a rate that far exceeds their peers, how many of a doctor’s patients died within 60 days of an opioid prescription, the average age of the patients receiving these prescriptions that pharmacies are dispensing, and which pharmacies are dispensing a disproportionate amount of opioids in regional hot-spots for opioid issues.”

“Fraudsters might lie but the numbers don’t,” he said. “They give a clear indication of who we need to examine.”

In addition, Sessions announced that the Justice Department will award nearly $20 million in federal grants to help law enforcement and public health agencies address prescription drug and opioid abuse. That's part of $58.8 million in funding announced Friday by the Department of Justice that will also strengthen drug court programs. 

Those efforts build on earlier attempts to reverse the opioid epidemic. Sessions spoke about the action two months ago when the DOJ coordinated the largest healthcare fraud takedown in American history, with the arrest of more than 400 defendants. More than 100 defendants have been charged with opioid-related crimes, including many doctors, he said.

Law enforcement is having success in prosecuting medical professionals who have fuel the opioid epidemic. In August, a doctor in Raleigh County, West Virginia, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for running a pill mill, Sessions noted. Michael Kostenko, D.O., 61, previously pleaded guilty to distribution of oxycodone not for legitimate medical purposes and beyond the bounds of medical practice. Sessions said Kostenko admitted that in just one day he wrote nearly 400 prescriptions, totaling more than 22,000 oxycodone pills, without actually seeing the 270 patients who received the drugs.

“Just imagine the consequences: New addictions started, lives destroyed, families torn apart. We all paid a price for his crimes,” he said.