The Department of Justice and HHS on Wednesday charged 60 people, including 53 medical professionals, in narcotic distribution cases spreading across 11 federal districts and involving more than 350,000 prescriptions and 32 million pills.
DOJ charged 31 doctors, seven pharmacists, eight nurse practitioners and seven other licensed medical professionals for illegally prescribing and distributing opioids and other narcotics, as well as healthcare fraud.
HHS also said it has excluded more than 2,000 people from participating in Medicare, Medicaid and other federal healthcare programs for opioid diversion and abuse activity since June 2018, including more than 650 providers.
DOJ has turned up the heat on cases involving opioids. Last year, the department announced its largest healthcare fraud takedown ever. DOJ charged 601 people for falsely billing Medicare, Medicaid and the U.S. military's TRICARE program for more than $2 billion. Those cases included 76 doctors and 84 opioid cases that involved more than 13 million illegal doses of opioids.
The government is turning to legislation as well to tamp down on the crisis. President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan law last year expanding access to treatment for opioid misuse and toughening laws against people mailing illicit drugs.
In announcing Wednesday's charges, HHS Secretary Alex Azar said federal and local public health authorizes are working together to tackle the problem, particularly in areas hit hardest like Appalachia. The Appalachia Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which launched in December, investigated the cases, which stretched across multiple states.
The cases varied, but all of them dealt with opioids. One case in Dayton, Ohio, involved a doctor and pharmacies who allegedly operated a "pill mill" churning out more than 1.75 million pills in a two-year span.
A Kentucky doctor was charged with providing pre-signed blank prescriptions to his staff and urging them to prescribe controlled substances when he was out of office. A case in Florida involved a doctor receiving kickbacks in return for writing prescriptions for compounded drugs with controlled substances, and inflating the bills for Medicare and TRICARE reimbursement.
In the western district of Tennessee alone, 15 people were charged, including eight doctors. One nurse practitioner calling himself the "Rock Doc" reportedly prescribed opioids and benzodiazepines in exchange for sexual favors.
In a similar case, an Alabama doctor allegedly recruited prostitutes and other young women to become patients. He reportedly let them abuse drugs at his house and was engaged in sexual relationships with the women.
These are just a sampling of the multiple cases and spotlight the even seedier side of the opioid crisis, which HHS declared a national emergency in 2017. Since then, healthcare stakeholders across the spectrum have worked on ways to reduce opioid prescriptions and abuse. This effort includes prescription drug management programs, online databases that track opioid prescription rates across a state in an effort to keep physicians honest.
Despite federal initiatives and the recent crackdown, concerns remain that the Trump administration isn't doing enough. A U.S. Government Accountability Office identifying 17 public health emergency authorities the federal government could use to address the opioid crisis reported that only three were being used.