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Opioid Strike Team focuses on illegal prescriptions in five-state region of Appalachia

Becky Campbell • Updated Oct 25, 2018 at 11:07 PM

A new federal task force will work to stop a long-established stream of opioids in Appalachia from some in the medical field who provide illegal prescriptions to further their own financial success.

“While the opioid epidemic continues to inflict untold pain and suffering on people across the country, the devastation in the Appalachian region and adjacent areas has been particularly staggering,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, who works in the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division.

U.S. attorneys from a five-state region — including Eastern District of Tennessee U.S. Attorney Douglas Overbey — joined Benczkowski in Knoxville to announce the formation of the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, a joint law enforcement collaboration with a long list of other agencies, according to a press release.

“It is all the more reprehensible when unscrupulous physicians and pharmacies contribute to the epidemic by illegally supplying dangerous prescription painkillers,”  Benczkowski said.

Agencies Involved

• Health Care Fraud Unit in the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section;
• U.S. attorney’s offices for nine federal districts in five states;
• The FBI;
• U.S. Department of Health and Human Services office of the inspector general; and
• U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. 

“Working with our partners in U.S. attorney’s offices and law enforcement, the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force will combat illegal prescription opioids and health care fraud by holding accountable corrupt medical professionals who seek to profit off the crisis of opioid addiction.”

In addition to the U.S. attorneys, other officials who are part of the task force are Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Gary L. Cantrell of the Department of Health and Human Services’ office of the inspector general and Assistant Administrator John J. Martin of the DEA’s Diversion Control Division.

“The Appalachian Region, which includes the Eastern District of Tennessee, is unfortunately a ‘hot spot’ for drug abuse and overdose-related deaths in the country,” Overbey said. “We welcome the opportunity to work with our law enforcement partners in the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force to identify and prosecute those unscrupulous medical professionals and others engaged in health care fraud schemes involving illegal prescription, distribution, possession, and use of opioids.”

The strike force’s efforts will focus on criminal conduct by physicians who impropely prescribe opioids and other dangerous narcotics throughout the Appalachian region and surrounding areas. Investigators will target physicians, pharmacists and other medical professionals and prosecute violations of health care fraud whenever such fraud is detected throughout the region.

It’s just the latest efforts of federal authorities attempting to stop opioid addiction, overdose deaths and Medicare fraud.

Since its inception in March 2007, the prosecutors in the 12 Medicare Fraud Strike Force locations have charged over 4,000 defendants who collectively have falsely billed the Medicare program for more than $14 billion. Since January 2017, the HCF Unit has charged more than 85 defendants, including 33 doctors with the illegal prescription of opioids, which accounted for nearly 30 million pills.

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