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Attorney General Jeff Sessions announces new task force to combat illegal opioid prescriptions

Pharmacies, pain management clinics, drug testing facilities and individual physicians fall under the DOJ's microscope.

Susan Morse, Senior Editor

Credit: <a href=""> Gage Skidmore</a>Credit: Gage Skidmore

Attorney General Jeff Sessions today announced the creation of a Prescription Interdiction and Litigation Task Force to focus on drug manufacturers and distributors to combat the prescription opioid crisis.  

The PIL Task Force will fight the opioid crisis at every level of the distribution system, which includes pharmacies, pain management clinics, drug testing facilities, and individual physicians.

[Also: Health subcommittee to take up legislation to help providers, pharmacists, combat opioid epidemic]

"Today, we are opening a new front in the war on the opioid crisis by bringing all of our anti-opioid efforts under one banner," Sessions said by statement. 

The task force will build on existing Department of Justice initiatives to ensure that opioid manufacturers are marketing their products truthfully and in accordance with Food and Drug Administration rules, according to the DOJ.

[Also: Trump declares opioid epidemic a public health emergency]

There have been criminal prosecutions of doctors, dentists and pharmacists, Sessions said during the news conference. 

Following up on what states have done, "We will look to see what civil actions we can undertake in the department," he said

The work builds on that of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit that was created in August 2017. The unit uses data analysis to identify and prosecute individuals who are contributing to the opioid epidemic, including pill-mill schemes and pharmacies that unlawfully divert or dispense prescription opioids for illegitimate purposes.

In conjunction with the task force, the DOJ is filing a statement of interest regarding hundreds of lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors brought by cities, municipalities, and medical institutions.

The task force will examine existing state and local government lawsuits against opioid manufacturers to determine what assistance, if any, federal law can provide in those lawsuits.  

The plaintiffs, and the DOJ, want to recover the costs associated with providing treatment and public safety measures from those who allegedly used false, deceptive or unfair marketing practices for prescription opioid drugs.

In July, the attorney general announced charges against more than 120 defendants, including doctors, for crimes related to prescribing or distributing opioids and other narcotics.

One week later, the attorney general announced the seizure of AlphaBay, the largest criminal marketplace on the Internet, according to the DOJ. This site hosted some 220,000 drug listings – including more than 100 vendors advertising fentanyl – and was responsible for countless synthetic opioid overdoses, including the death of a 13-year old in Utah.

In October, the Department announced the first-ever indictments of Chinese nationals and their North American-based traffickers and distributors for separate conspiracies to distribute fentanyl and other opioids in the United States.

"Opioid abuse is driving the deadliest drug crisis in American history," Sessions said  "It has cost  this nation hundreds of thousands of precious lives. It has strained our public health and law enforcement resources and bankrupted countless families across this country. President Trump and this administration have made ending this unprecedented crisis a priority, and the Department of Justice is committed to using every lawful tool at our disposal to turn the tide.  We will seek to hold accountable those whose illegality has cost us billions of taxpayer dollars."

Sessions has directed the PIL Task Force to establish a working group to improve coordination and data sharing across the federal government to better identify violations of law and patterns of fraud related to the opioid epidemic and to evaluate possible regulatory changes and recommend changes to the law.

"We have no time to waste," Sessions said. "Every day, 180 Americans die from drug overdoses. This epidemic actually lowered American life expectancy in 2015 and 2016 for the first time in decades, with drug overdose now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50."

The announcements were made the day before lawmakers in the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health are scheduled to hold their first of three sessions on combating the opioid crisis.

Twitter: @SusanJMorse
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