On Jan. 30, 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that over the next 45 days, as part of its continued increase in opioid-related enforcement, the Drug Enforcement Agency will “surge” agents and investigators to opioid “hot spots.” The surge will “focus on pharmacies and prescribers who are dispensing unusual or disproportionate amounts of drugs.” He noted that the surge will rely on transaction reports from manufacturers and distributors, and that the agency will “aggregate these numbers to find patterns, trends [and] statistical outliers—and put them into targeting practice.”
This announcement follows on the heels of related initiatives to address the opioid crisis roiling the country. In August, AG Sessions announced the creation of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit. Data analytics will be used to “identify and prosecute individuals that are contributing to this prescription opioid epidemic.” The unit, which assigns a prosecutor to each of 12 participating districts, is particularly focused on the nexus between healthcare fraud and opioid abuse.
In November, AG Sessions ordered every U.S. Attorney to designate an Opioid Coordinator by the close of business on Dec. 15, 2017. These Opioid Coordinators not only will handle cases involving trafficking of heroin and fentanyl, but will manage prescription opioid cases as well. The Opioid Coordinators will work with other law enforcement agencies to determine when a case will be brought as a criminal prosecution and will assess the overall effectiveness of their districtwide strategy. In doing so, they will maintain data on opioid prosecutions.
Taken together, these developments signal a commitment to using a data-driven approach to frame the federal government’s prosecution-focused response, which now clearly targets pharmacies and distributors that handle larger-than-expected doses of opioids. Such metrics have been used to uncover large-scale opioid diversion. A Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the Charleston Gazette-Mail in 2016 found that 780 million doses of painkillers had been distributed, many in small towns where the population would not justify such numbers. A follow-up article on Jan. 29 of this year found that one town had received 20.8 million doses over ten years, despite a population of only 2,900.
Why it matters
Data-driven metrics illustrating opioid distribution have been cited in civil litigation filed against opioid manufacturers, distributors and dispensers, including cases that have been consolidated in the Multi-District Litigation in the Northern District of Ohio. It is now clear that data metrics will become a primary tool to support enforcement actions as well, allowing the Department of Justice to focus its limited resources on the most egregious cases. The announcement of a 45-day surge should serve as a warning not just to pharmacies, but to all those involved in distributing opioids, highlighting the need for rigorous internal compliance and monitoring programs as well as robust investigative follow-up.