WASHINGTON - U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a new initiative Tuesday that will target painkiller manufacturers and distributors who overprescribe and allow the misuse of prescription drugs by addicts. The initiative, Sessions said, will tackle the opioid crisis “at its root.”
The Prescription Interdiction and Litigation (PIL) Task Force will “use criminal and civil actions” to ensure that prescription painkiller manufacturers and distributors adhere to rules against diversion and over-prescription of pain drugs.
WATCH: U.S. Attorney General Announces New Task Force to Combat Opioid Epidemic
The task force will use the False Claims Act to prosecute pain management clinics, drug testing facilities and doctors who improperly prescribe opioids, the Justice Department said.
“Over the past year, the Department has vigorously fought the prescription opioid crisis, and we are determined to continue making progress,” Sessions said at a press conference in Washington. “Today, we are opening a new front in the war on the opioid crisis by bringing all of our anti-opioid efforts under one banner. We have no time to waste.”
Over-prescription of painkillers
Rampant over-prescription of painkillers has long been seen as a driving force of the opioid crisis in the United States. The vast majority of opioid addicts start off with prescription painkillers before switching to heroin, the synthetic opioid fentanyl and other more potent drugs.
The United States, which represents less than five percent of the global population, consumed more than 30 percent of the world's opioid supply in 2015, according to the International Narcotics Control Board.
“It is estimated that we use many times more opioids than is medically necessary for a population our size,” Sessions said.
In 2016, a record 64,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, most of them from opioid painkillers, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Preliminary data indicate 2017 “was even worse, albeit with a much smaller increase,” Sessions said.
Leading cause of death
Amid the opioid epidemic, drug overdose has become the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.
“These are not acceptable trends, and this new task force will make us more effective in reversing them and saving Americans from the scourge of opioid addiction,” Sessions said.
The attorney general said the newly created task force of senior officials from across the Justice Department will also review pending state and local lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors to determine what support the Justice Department can lend to those legal efforts.
To that end, the Justice Department plans to file a “statement of interest” in support of hundreds of lawsuits brought against opioid manufacturers and distributors, Sessions said.
The lawsuits, filed by a number of cities, municipalities and medical institutions, seek to recover the costs associated with providing treatment and public safety measures instituted in response to the drug crisis.
Medicare pays for opioids
The Department of Justice will argue that federal agencies have borne substantial costs as a result of the opioid crisis and seek reimbursement.
In 2016, the federally funded Medicare prescription drug program paid more than $4 billion for opioids, according to Sessions.
The attorney general described the creation of the task force as the latest in a series of steps the justice Department has taken to combat an epidemic that is showing few signs of letting up.
Last month, Sessions announced a 45-day surge of DEA agents to focus on pharmacies and prescribers who were dispensing an unusual or disproportionate amount of drugs.
Last year, President Donald Trump declared the opioid epidemic a “public health emergency,” but critics say the declaration led to few additional resources to tackle the crisis.
Sessions, however, defended the administration’s commitment to combating the epidemic, saying the Justice Department has taken “historic new actions to reverse the rising tide of addiction and death.”
Among the steps, he cited the indictment of more than 120 defendants, including doctors, the takedown of a Dark Net drug bazaar and the creation of a unit to detect evidence of overprescription and opioid-related health fraud.