For Immediate Release - January 20, 2016

State and Federal Agencies Announce New Coalition to Fight Illegal Opioid Prescribing and Dispensing

Opioid Prescribing Rose Nearly 140% Nationwide From Mid-1990s to 2013

BOSTON – A coalition of state and federal agencies today announced the formation of the Interagency Group on Illegal Prescribing, which will investigate and prosecute prescribers, pharmacists and others who contribute to the opioid epidemic by illegally prescribing or dispensing pills. The group will be led by Attorney General Maura Healey’s Office.

“The opioid and heroin epidemic is too large and too urgent a problem to allow silos and red tape to impede our efforts to combat it,” AG Healey said. “We will never truly address this crisis unless we reverse the culture of overprescribing of opioids that has taken hold over the past decade. I want to thank our partners who are joining together to combat the problem of illegal prescribing, and look forward to working with all of them collaboratively moving forward.”

Members of the Interagency Group on Illegal Prescribing (IGIP) include law enforcement agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the United States Department of Health and Human Services - Office of Inspector General. Participating state agencies include the State Auditor’s Office and MassHealth.

The coalition will meet regularly to share information about potential criminal activity, referrals received, common investigations and opportunities for collaboration. By working more closely together, the group can eliminate duplicative efforts and save time and resources. The AG’s Medicaid Fraud Division and Criminal Bureau will lead the group.

“Patient health and well-being hangs in the balance when controlled substances are misused or abused,” said United States Attorney Carmen M. Ortiz. “As the abuse of opioids burgeons in the Commonwealth, our responsibility as law enforcement and health care leaders to combat the practice of illegal prescribing has never been more prudent. I look forward to collaborating with state and federal partners to ensure that the law is obeyed, safety standards are uncompromised, and employees are appropriately trained and monitored.”

“This task force is an excellent example of how state agencies can collaborate to make government work better,” said Auditor Suzanne Bump. “When government agencies work collaboratively, it has a synergistic effect that produces better outcomes. Addressing the illegal prescribing of opiates is far too important an issue to not seize the opportunity to pool our resources and talents to more effectively identify and address the problem. I look forward to collaborating with my state and federal colleagues on this task force.”

“Any time prescription medication is misused or falls into the hands of the person it was not intended for, there is potential for harm,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services, Marylou Sudders. “We know there are people who need opioids to manage chronic pain but we also know there are others who misuse opioids and are at an increased risk for addiction. Working together we will bend the trend of opioid deaths.”

“The FBI is committed to a multi-faceted approach to stop illegal drug prescribing and distribution,” said Special Agent in Charge Harold H. Shaw of the FBI’s Boston Division. “By working together, we can effectively target those individuals who are contributing to this growing epidemic.”

“DEA registrants, to include practitioners, dentists and pharmacies are responsible to handle controlled substances in compliance with the Controlled Substance Act,” said Special Agent in Charge Michael J. Ferguson of the DEA’s New England Field Division. “The diversion of prescription pain killers contributes to the widespread abuse of opiates which, is a gateway to heroin addiction and is devastating our communities. Our obligation is to improve public safety and public health, and we are committed to working with our law enforcement and regulatory partners nationwide to ensure that these rules and regulations are followed.”

“We are committed to investigating physicians and other health care professionals that illegally distribute narcotics like common drug dealers,” said Special Agent in Charge Phillip Coyne of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—Office of the Inspector General (HHS-OIG). “In this coalition, the Office of Inspector General will continue the fight against this deadly and destructive opiate epidemic to protect public safety as well as the federal health care programs intended to care for vulnerable Americans.”

Deaths from opioid-related overdoses more than doubled in Massachusetts between 2011 and 2014, with more than 1,250 people believed to have died here in 2014. In Massachusetts alone, there were 4,664,391 prescriptions for Schedule II and III opioids in 2014. That is a prescription for nearly every adult in Massachusetts. Nationally, the number of opioid prescriptions jumped by approximately 120 million between the mid-1990s and 2013, an increase of nearly 140 percent. 

Through recent case work, the AG’s Office has already seen the benefits of partnering with other state and federal agencies. A recent investigation by the Attorney General’s Office lead to the indictment of a Ludlow physician accused of illegally prescribing pain medication to patients with known substance abuse issues. That indictment followed the May indictment of a Hyannis physician who also allegedly illegally prescribed opioids.

This coalition is one part of the campaign to address the growing addiction crisis in Massachusetts that continues to be a top priority for AG Healey. Changing the culture around the prescribing of opioids is a significant part of those efforts.

The United States consumes 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply, and 4 out of 5 heroin addicts started with prescription pills. Since 2000, opioid overdoses have quadrupled and prescription opioid overdoses take more lives each year than heroin overdoses. There are more than three times as many Americans struggling with prescription opioid dependence or addiction as there are those dealing with heroin addiction.

While in Washington D.C. last week speaking to federal officials about ways to address the growing opioid addiction epidemic nationwide, AG Healey sent a letter supporting the CDC for drafting guidelines that will provide much-needed information to primary care providers across the country about when and how opioids should be prescribed for chronic pain – creating a single, nationwide, evidence-based standard. The guidelines proposed by the CDC make clear that addictive opioids should not be the initial treatment for chronic pain and should only be used where their benefits outweigh the risks.

AG Healey also joined 35 attorneys general in sending a letter to the CDC that supports the strong framework for providers and clear guidelines that will provide a foundation for practice, recognizing that doctors will need to adapt them to meet the individual needs of their patients.

The AG’s Office is looking at a host of other practices, from marketing by pharmaceutical companies, to pill diversion and drug trafficking by criminal entities, to coverage for substance abuse treatment by insurance companies. The AG’s Office is working on solutions that include eliminating barriers to treatment, and supporting prevention and education initiatives across the state.