Aug. 2 (UPI) -- Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Wednesday the Justice Department is hiring 12 federal prosecutors to tackle opioid-related healthcare fraud.
He said the U.S. attorneys -- each funded for a three-year term -- will focus on the opioid crisis in 12 districts throughout the country. The are part of the newly created Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit.
"I have created this unit to focus specifically on opioid-related health care fraud using data to identify and prosecute individuals that are contributing to this opioid epidemic," Sessions said while speaking at the Columbus Police Academy in Ohio. "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."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in July that prescriptions for opioid painkillers have dropped since 2010, but the number of Americans getting the highly addictive medications is still too high. The CDC said drug overdoses accounted for more than 52,400 deaths in 2015, with nearly two of three overdoses caused by an opioid.
Prescriptions declined from a peak of 782 morphine milligram equivalents per person in 2010 to 640 MME per person in 2015. But the total amount of opioids prescribed in 2015 was still about three times that of 1999, CDC researchers said, with many people being provided lengthy prescriptions of the narcotics at high doses.
"In recent years some of the government officials in our country I think have mistakenly sent mixed messages about the harmfulness of drugs," Sessions said. "So let me say: We cannot capitulate intellectually or morally unto this kind of rampant drug abuse. We must create a culture that's hostile to drug abuse."
The districts targeted in the pilot program include: Middle District of Florida, Eastern District of Michigan, Northern District of Alabama, Eastern District of Tennessee, District of Nevada, Eastern District of Kentucky, District of Maryland, Western District of Pennsylvania, Southern District of Ohio, Eastern District of California, Middle District of North Carolina and Southern District of West Virginia.