Strike force investigation nets dozens of medical professionals

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ROANOKE, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- A regional strike force charged with fighting against the opioid epidemic reports dozens of medical professionals have been charged.

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According to a release from the U.S. Attorneys Office for the Western District of Virginia, an investigation by the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force has resulted in action against 60 people in 11 federal districts.

Of those defendants, 31 are doctors, seven are pharmacists, eight are nurse practioners, and seven are other licensed medical professionals.

They are all facing charges for allegedly participating in the illegal prescribing and distribution of opioids and other dangerous narcotics and for health care fraud schemes.

A report in the USA Today says these defendants gave out about 350,00 prescription that total more than 32 million pills.

"The opiod epidemic is the deadliest drug crisis in American history, and Appalachia has suffered the consequences more than perhaps any other region," said U.S Attorney General William Barr. "But the Department of Justice is doing its part to help end this crisis. One of the department's most promising new initiatives is the Criminal Division's Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, which began its work in December. Just four months later, this team of federal agents and 12 prosecutors has charged 60 defendants for alleged crimes related to millions of prescriptions."

So far, the strike force has focused in states like West Virginia, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says has been hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, and Ohio, which reported the second highest overall overdose deaths in the nation.

It is now expanding its reach into Virginia.

The strike force, also known as the ARPO, is a joint law enforcement effort combining the resources and expertise of the DOJ's Criminals Division's Fraud Section's Health Care Fraud Unit, the U.S. Attorney's Office in ten federal districts in six states, and law enforcement partners in the FBI, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Inspector General, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and several State Medicaid Fraud Control Units were also involved in this investigation.

The ARPO's mission is to identify and investigate health care fraud schemes in the Appalachian region and surrounding areas, and to prosecute medical professionals and others who are involved in the illegal prescription and distribution of opioids.

"The opioid epidemic has ravaged communities throughout the Western District of Virginia," said U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen. "In order to mitigate this crisis, we are working closely with our federal, state and local partners on targeted and impactful enforcement initiatives, including the prosecution of corrupt health-care providers, drug-trafficking organizations, and those involved in Fentanyl distribution. I am grateful to Attorney General Barr for deploying the ARPO Strike Force into Western Virginia and dedicating additional resources to help us with these critical efforts."

The USA Today report calls it a first-of-its-kind effort through which federal investigators are working with public health officials to try and get those who have received prescriptions from such medical practitioners to addiction treatment.

The CDC says about 115 Americans die every day of an opioid-related overdose. Between 1999 and 2017, the CDC says about 218,000 people died from overdoses related to prescription opioids in America.

Federal prosecutors have reported the impact of illegal prescriptions has been devastating in rural communities due to the limited options patients have when they try to seek medical help.

Also on Wednesday, the HHS announced that since June 2018, it has excluded more than 2,000 people from participating in Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health care programs, including more than 650 providers for conduct related to opioid diversion and abuse.

And since July 2017, the DEA has issued 31 immediate suspension orders, 129 orders to show cause and received 1,386 surrenders for cause across the country for violations of the Controlled Substance Act.

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