Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Wednesday during a speech at the Columbus Police Academy a new Department of Justice (DOJ) pilot program, Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, and named eastern Tennessee as one of the 12 districts selected to participate in the program. According to the DOJ website, the program will “utilize data to help combat the devastating opioid crisis that is ravaging families and communities across America.”
As part of the program, the DOJ will fund twelve Assistant U.S. Attorneys whose focus will be to investigate and prosecute health care fraud related to prescription opioids.
The opioid epidemic has received much attention in the state, following a Tennessee Department of Health report that 1,451 people lost their lives to drug overdose in 2015 alone. Since then, House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) created an opioid task force to address the state’s epidemic. While well received, the formation of the task force was not without controversy, because none of the Representatives named to it are from Northeast Tennessee – the area hardest hit by the crisis with more than double the number of admissions for opioid treatment as compared to any other region in the state.
More recently, the Tennessee Department of Health issued a Public Health Advisory on April 27, warning that the misuse of the powerful drug, Fentanyl, can be fatal.
The opioid crisis also has an impact on the state’s economy, as Tennessee business owners cite their inability to find employees who can pass a drug test.
Nationwide, economists say that “prescription opioid addition costs our economy some $78 billion a year and other illicit drugs cost us another $193 billion a year,” according to Sessions in his prepared comments.
While Session was alluding to the economic impact when he said, “Remember, many of these drugs are paid for by private insurance, Medicaid, Medicare and the VA,” State Rep. Jerry Sexton (R-Bean Station) had a different take when he called out the state and federal government as the biggest drug dealers through programs like TennCare at an Americans For Prosperity town hall.
Attorney General Sessions said the enforcement by the 12 special prosecutors, working with the FBI, DEA, HHS along with state and local partners, will bring will make a difference in turning the tide on the epidemic. The effort is expected to, in addition to reducing the threat of drug addiction, reduce the violence associated with drug trafficking, with debts too frequently collected “by the barrel of a gun.”
“In the face of the worst drug crisis in our history, we need to use every lawful tool we have,” said Sessions.
Engaging physicians and health care workers, committing DOJ resources and strengthening DOJ partnerships with front-line law enforcement, Sessions expressed optimism, “I’m convinced this is a winnable war.”