Federal Investigators Target Doctors in Hopes of Fighting the Opioid Crisis

opioid crisisNew Tactics By The Justice Department Mean More Doctors May be Prosecuted

A new group of federal law enforcement nabbed their first indictment of a doctor in the fight against the opioid crisis. Valley News reports, the nationwide effort of law enforcement officials gives them all new access to prescription drug databases, Medicaid and Medicare figures, coroners’ records, and other numbers compiled by the Justice Department.

The Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit is a combination of law enforcement officials in 12 regions across the country. All united by the goal of stopping fraudulent doctors faster than before. The new organization of data means they have access to which doctors are prescribing the most, how far patients will travel to see them, and whether any of those patients have died within 60 days of receiving one of their prescriptions.

Pittsburgh Pill Mill

Valley News reports that the first doctor to be indicted was out of a Pittsburgh pain clinic. The data shows that patients would travel hundreds of miles to see Dr. Andrzej Zielke. Prosecutors claim he provided “a steady flow of prescriptions” that have contributed to the opioid crisis in the U.S.

At least one of his patients is known to have died of an overdose, but local Pittsburg officials remained unaware of the danger. That is until an agent with the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit handed the local federal prosecutor a binder with Zielke’s information. He is now facing charges of conspiracy and unlawfully distributing controlled substances. Zielke has denied the allegations.

New Approach to Opioid Crisis

This indictment ushers in a new approach to fighting the opioid crisis. Previously, prosecutors would spend months or years building a case by relying on informants’ limited data. Now the number-crunching by the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit lets them identify potential threats with swift precision.

The Trump Administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions both agree new tactics need to be deployed against the opioid crisis. The president called it a public health emergency and let the government redirect resources in various ways to fight the abuse.

However, no new money has been earmarked by the President or Congress to fight opioid abuse. It’s still too early to see if this data-driven approach will make an effective tool against the overall deaths due to opioid use.

The Pushback

According to the article, officials do acknowledge there are legitimate reasons for some doctors to prescribe large quantities of opioids. They do say that high prescribing alone doesn’t trigger an investigation. However, red flags will be raised if dentists, psychiatrists, gynecologists, and other physicians, who may not normally treat patients with narcotics, start prescribing high rates of opioids.

Critics say this tactic may lead doctors to stop prescriptions for all opioids. The outcome could be that patients may be forced to turn to illicit street dealers for legitimate pain. Others point out that the focus should be on opioid addiction treatment and not on possible pill pushing physicians.

Jeffrey A. Newman represents whistleblowers: 1-800-682-7157