Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 11:26 pm | Fair 70º


Diane Dimond: Fighting the Opioid Epidemic From a Behind a Computer

Anyone remember when President Donald Trump declared America’s escalating epidemic of opioid addiction "a national health emergency” that is ripping families apart?

The October announcement may have gotten lost given the sheer amount of Trump news, but that declaration allowed the government to designate federal funds to fight the deadliest drug crisis this country has ever seen.

More than 90 Americans die of opioid overdoses every single day. For Americans under the age of 50, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death. In 2016, there were more than 64,000 fatal drug overdoses in the United States.

The New York Times headline at the time of Trump's announcement? It read, “Trump Declares Opioid Crisis a ‘Health Emergency’ but Requests No Funds.” Well, apparently, the Justice Department has found the money and manpower it needs to begin to tackle the problem.

It’s not a panacea, but it sure makes me wonder why the DOJ has never done this before.

The department formed the Opioid Fraud and Detection Unit in August, which has tapped into a broad range of national databases and other drug-related resources — from Medicaid and Medicare, to records from pharmacies, physician offices and even coroner archives across the country — all with an eye toward putting together the mosaic of drug-death information.

From that, the unit was able to identify 12 regional hotspots in most need of help.

The Washington, D.C.-based analytic team has now begun to share the following information with federal prosecutors in that dozen areas: which doctors in their region seem to be prescribing suspicious amounts of opioids, the age of their patients, how far the patients traveled to see the physician and whether any patients died within two months of getting their opioid prescription.

In addition, the new DOJ unit has been able to pass on clues about which pharmacies appear to be dispensing excessive amounts of opioids.

This type of wide-reaching computerized analytics means prosecutors in those areas don’t have to rely on unpredictable informants or spend months trying to scrape together enough evidence to build a case against an overprescribing doctor or pill-pushing pharmacist.

This new trove of information allows investigators to zero in on suspicious people and places, and launch investigations right away. Indictments have already been issued.

The DOJ also has tapped into the workforce at the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Health & Human Services Department to help control the drug threat. HHS has already moved to strip licenses from hundreds of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and operators of pain clinics known to have engaged in drug diversion and pharmacy fraud schemes.

Imagine that: different departments of the government sharing information and working together to solve a problem!

This should now give the criminal element pause, especially in the DOJ unit’s earmarked regions in California, Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia.

And DOJ officials hope to expand this computerized crime-fighting work nationwide. The department’s 2018 budget request to Congress asks for more than $1 billion to expand the anti-opioid program.

Yet as positive as all this sounds, it really is only a drop in the drug-death bucket. When prescription drugs are no longer available, patients frequently turn to black-market drugs to ease their pain. We continue to have a massive problem of illegal street drugs flooding into the country and being manufactured right here at home.

Medical experts warn that law-abiding doctors who dispense opioids to truly needy patients might start abandoning them to avoid professional risk. With nowhere else to go for relief, these patients could very well turn to the streets, or worse, commit suicide.

Dr. Andrew Kolodny of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing recently told The Associated Press that prosecutors’ emphasis on “drug-dealing doctors” is warranted but not enough to fight today’s rampant opioid problem.

“It’s just not really going to have that much of an impact on an epidemic,” he said.

Change will only come, he added, if society pushes harder for anti-drug education and better treatment programs for addicts.

In addition, he said, “They should go after the bigger fish. ... the legal narcotics distributors and wholesalers who have literally been getting away with mass manslaughter.”

So, are you, like me, wondering why we — a superpower on Earth — cannot do all these things? Why can’t we crack down on greedy criminals who feed off the misery of others, teach citizens the real-life dangers of drugs and provide a place for redeemable addicts to become contributing members of the community?

The answer, of course, is that we could make huge progress toward that if we were to really put our minds to it.

Do you know a family who has been impacted by the drug crisis? Have it join you in writing to your member of Congress to demand more positive and innovative steps toward solving this paralyzing problem.

Diane Dimond is the author of Thinking Outside the Crime and Justice Box. Contact her at [email protected], follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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