New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force to Combat Unlawful Prescribing Amidst Continuing Opioid Epidemic
Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr., of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division today announced the formation of the New England Prescription Opioid (NEPO) Strike Force, a joint law enforcement effort that brings together the resources and expertise of the Health Care Fraud Unit in the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices for three federal districts, as well as law enforcement partners at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG), U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the FBI. The mission of the NEPO Strike Force is to identify and investigate health care fraud schemes in the New England region, and to effectively and efficiently prosecute individuals involved in the illegal distribution of prescription opioids and other prescribed controlled substances. The NEPO Strike Force will primarily target criminal conduct by physicians, pharmacists, and other medical professionals, focusing upon both health care fraud and drug diversion offenses, as relevant based upon the facts of the particular case.
“This NEPO Strike Force expands and sharpens the Justice Department’s response to the nation’s opioid epidemic,” said Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite, Jr., of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division. “In the last year, more than 75,000 people in the United States lost their lives due to overdose. Since 2018, some of the greatest spikes in the drug overdose death rate have occurred in New England. The NEPO Strike Force will help to address one of the root causes of the epidemic: unlawful prescription and diversion of opioids. Together with our partners, we will fulfill the department’s solemn promise to deploy critical resources to address the opioid crisis.”
Assistant Attorney General Polite was joined in the announcement in Concord, New Hampshire, by U.S. Attorney Jane E. Young for the District of New Hampshire; U.S. Attorney Darcie N. McElwee for the District of Maine; U.S. Attorney Nikolas P. Kerest for the District of Vermont; Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Christian J. Schrank of HHS-OIG; Assistant Administrator Kristi N. O’Malley of the DEA Diversion Control Division; and Acting Deputy Assistant Director Aaron Tapp of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division.
“The formation of NEPO presents a tremendous opportunity for our three Northern New England states to disrupt the illegal prescription and distribution of opioids,” said U.S. Attorney Jane E. Young for the District of New Hampshire. “As a state, we are grateful to the Department of Justice to be part of this initiative and excited that it will be based here in New Hampshire.”
“Maine’s opioid overdose death rate has skyrocketed, and law enforcement has identified the opioid epidemic as the number one issue officers face,” said U.S. Attorney Darcie N. McElwee for the District of Maine. “While the trafficking of illegal drugs, in particular fentanyl, is well publicized, 23% of overdose deaths in Maine are the result of pharmaceutical opioids, and many of those who died from illicit substances very likely first tried pharmaceuticals, either their own or those of a friend or family member. This Strike Force will provide vital resources to help fight a growing epidemic, and along with our partners, we will pursue any medical personnel who misuse their position to endanger lives through the overprescribing of opioids for their own financial gain.”
“The announcement of the New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force demonstrates the Department of Justice’s commitment to working with our law enforcement partners in Vermont and elsewhere to hold accountable health care providers who exploit the opioid epidemic for personal gain,” said U.S. Attorney Nikolas P. Kerest for the District of Vermont. “Health care providers who issue illegal opioid prescriptions undermine important efforts to address the epidemic while putting patients at risk of overdose and physical harm.”
“HHS-OIG is unwavering in our commitment to hold accountable providers who illegally prescribe opioids for personal profit while neglecting the safety and wellbeing of their patients,” said Inspector General Christi A. Grimm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Along with our law enforcement partners, HHS-OIG is proud to support the New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force in a collaborative effort to assist communities plagued by the opioid epidemic.”
“At a time when the United States is losing tens of thousands of Americans to opioid overdoses every year, it has never been more critical to ensure doctors and health care practitioners are prioritizing the safety and health of their patients,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. “The creation of the New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force further strengthens our important cooperation with partners in the region to hold accountable any practitioner who recklessly distributes opioid medications.”
“The formation of the New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force provides the FBI and our law enforcement partners with important collective resources to combat health care fraud and drug diversion schemes within the region,” said Assistant Director Luis Quesada of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division. “The FBI will not tolerate those medical professionals willing to sacrifice patients’ health for their personal profit and will work tirelessly to root out and bring to justice those individuals who illegally distribute prescription opioids and other controlled substances.”
The NEPO Strike Force will operate as a partnership between prosecutors and data analysts with the Fraud Section’s Health Care Fraud Unit, prosecutors with the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, and special agents with HHS-OIG, DEA, and the FBI. It will operate out of the Concord, New Hampshire, area, supporting the three districts that make up the NEPO Strike Force region. In addition, the NEPO Strike Force will work closely with other federal and state law enforcement agencies, including the State Medicaid Fraud Control Units.
Today’s NEPO Strike Force announcement builds on the demonstrated success of the Health Care Fraud Unit’s Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid (ARPO) Strike Force. Since its inception in late 2018, ARPO has partnered with federal and state law enforcement agencies and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices throughout Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee, and West Virginia to prosecute medical professionals and others involved in the illegal prescription and distribution of opioids. Over the past three years, ARPO has charged 111 defendants, collectively responsible for issuing prescriptions for over 115 million controlled substance pills. To date, more than 60 ARPO defendants have been convicted.