Attorney General Jeff Sessions has created a new task force to target the manufacturers and distributors of prescription painkillers that have contributed to an epidemic of opioid overdoses.
The Prescription Interdiction and Litigation, or PIL Task Force, will review all civil and criminal penalties available to pursue charges against opioid producers for any illegal activity. It will also examine regulatory and legislative changes to reduce the number of opioid deaths across the United States.
Mr. Sessions said the task force could pull the licenses of any pharmacist or physician who illegally prescribes opioids.
“We will use whatever laws and tools we have to hold people accountable if they break our laws,” Mr. Sessions said Tuesday afternoon during a press conference attended by attorneys-general from seven states.
The attorneys general from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia — states that have been ravaged by the opioid crisis — spoke out about the need for a task force.
Kellyanne Conway, who is overseeing the White House’s efforts to fight opioid abuse, was also in attendance.
Mr. Sessions said the task force is looking at existing state and government lawsuits against opioid manufacturers to see if the Justice Department can be of assistance.
In fact, the Justice Department is already involved in one such case. On Tuesday, it filed a statement of interest in a multi-district lawsuit against hundreds of opioid manufacturers and distributors for using false, deceptive and unfair claims to market opioid drugs.
The plaintiffs include numerous cities, municipalities and medical institutions that have born “substantial costs” associated with treating and fighting the opioid crisis. The Justice Department will primarily argue that those costs are ultimately borne by the federal government and seek reimbursement.
Medicare’s prescription drug plan paid out more than $4 billion for opioids in 2016, and the opioid crisis cost the country $115 billion overall last year, Mr. Sessions said.
“The hardworking taxpayers of this country deserve to be compensated for any illegal activity that has contributed to these costs,” he said. “And we will go to court to ensure the American people receive the compensation they deserve.”
In 2016, there were 64,000 fatal drug overdoses in the United States, the highest number ever recorded. Preliminary data indicates that 2017 will even more overdose deaths, Mr. Sessions said. Most of the deaths are related to opioids, including prescription painkillers, illegal drugs such as heroin, and synthetic products such as fentanyl.
Mr. Sessions also introduced Mary Daly, who had been hired to lead the Justice Department’s war against opioids. A veteran federal prosecutor, Ms. Daly worked in New York and Virginia fighting transnational drug trafficking organizations.
The attorney general vowed to continue the fight against opioid deaths, signaling more announcements in the future.
“These are not our last steps,” he said. “We will continue to attack the opioid crisis from every angle.”
John Gray, president and CEO of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a trade group representing pharmaceutical distributors, praised the Justice Department’s efforts. He called on the industry to work with the DEA on the creation of a “suspicious orders” database that would be accessible to law enforcement and state legislators.
“Health care supply chain partners and providers must come together to determine how to raise awareness about the potential risks of opioid use and abuse,” he said in a statement.
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