I praised a new report from a federal opioid commission yesterday because its proposals to stop the increase in deadly drug overdoses did not include harsher laws or criminal sentences. It should have occurred to me that Attorney General Jeff Sessions didn't need the encouragement.
Today Sessions announced a new task force devoted to fighting opioid overdoses by going after doctors who overprescribe the drugs. He's not even trying to sugarcoat it—he wants to put doctors in prison cells. From the Justice Department's press release:
Speaking at the Columbus Police Academy today, Attorney General Sessions said that the new Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit will focus specifically on opioid-related health care fraud using data to identify and prosecute individuals that are contributing to this prescription opioid epidemic.
Additionally, as part of the program, the Department will fund twelve experienced Assistant United States Attorneys for a three year term to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting health care fraud related to prescription opioids, including pill mill schemes and pharmacies that unlawfully divert or dispense prescription opioids for illegitimate purposes.
The Department of Justice is clearly suggesting that it will focus on practices that simply hand out prescriptions like perfume samples and don't actually keep an eye on dosages or signs of addiction. But if you read further, you'll see the department is going to decide what the appropriate amount of opioid use is. And the consequences for falling outside the norms could be severe. From Sessions' speech:
This sort of data analytics team can tell us important information about prescription opioids—like which physicians are writing opioid prescriptions at a rate that far exceeds their peers; how many of a doctor's patients died within 60 days of an opioid prescription; the average age of the patients receiving these prescriptions; pharmacies that are dispensing disproportionately large amounts of opioids; and regional hot spots for opioid issues.
With this data in hand, I am also assigning 12 experienced prosecutors to focus solely on investigating and prosecuting opioid-related health care fraud cases in a dozen locations around the country where we know enforcement will make a difference in turning the tide on this epidemic. These prosecutors, working with FBI, DEA, HHS, as well as our state and local partners, will help us target and prosecute these doctors, pharmacies, and medical providers who are furthering this epidemic to line their pockets.
When you get a bunch of prosecutors together to tell them to fight opioid abuse, we know what's going to happen. They're going to look for doctors to prosecute, and they're certainly not going to go back to Sessions and tell him they don't see any likely targets.
Every single doctor who prescribes pain medication in the areas the Department of Justice is monitoring now has a target on his or her back. Every chronic pain-sufferer who turns to these doctors for assistance will now be treated as a potential addict and faces heightened chances of being denied medication.
The most logical outcome is that more people will turn to the black market to try to find some relief or to fulfill their cravings if they're addicts (or both—those aren't exclusive states). This ultimately increases the possibility that addicts and pain-sufferers will take drugs whose origins and contents are not known, and thus increases the risk of harm. This is not a recipe for reducing drug overdoses.
Furthermore, this crackdown on doctors comes alongside Sessions' push to attack the illegal drug market as well. Bafflingly, in a speech Sessions gave today at a police academy in Columbus, Ohio, he made it clear he has absolutely no understanding of the relationship between government prohibitions and black markets: "Drug trafficking is an inherently violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can't file a lawsuit in court. You collect it by the barrel of a gun."
It's the government's fault people can't go to court to collect a drug debt. It's the government that has made drug trafficking "inherently violent" by making it a criminal franchise. He insists that government efforts to reduce demand has worked in fighting cigarette smoking, which will come as a surprise to all those people smuggling the cancer sticks into New York.
The federal Eastern District of California is included among the places being targeted for enforcement against physicians. Fortunately, that district does not include West Covina, where Reason TV recently interviewed Dr. Forest Tennant. Tennant argues that opioids are being overly demonized as painkillers and actual pain-sufferers are paying the price. Watch below: