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Opioid task force will target MDs, pharmacists

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Massachuetts Attorney General Maura Healey at opioid press conference at her offices in Boston.
Massachuetts Attorney General Maura Healey at opioid press conference at her offices in Boston.(John Blanding, Boston Globe staff)

Citing the scourge of opioid overdoses and deaths, a team of state and local law enforcement officials on Wednesday announced a partnership to investigate one cause of the epidemic: the doctors and pharmacists who illegally prescribe or dispense pain medications.

Attorney General Maura Healey said a task force led by her office, called the Interagency Group on Illegal Prescribing, will pair Drug Enforcement Administration and FBI agents with state and local police, public health officials, and analysts from the state auditor's office.

The goal is to identify doctors who have a questionable pattern of writing too many opioid prescriptions, or prescribe to too many people who are not from their area. The analysts would also look at pharmacists who routinely bill Medicare and Medicaid for those prescriptions, searching for fraudulent claims.

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"We do know, unfortunately, there are some bad apples out there," Healey said at a press conference at her office. "I think the medical community is responsible, the pharmaceutical community is responsible, I think all of us in government . . . are responsible" for addressing the region's opioid epidemic.

Officials cited statistics demonstrating that prescription drug abuse can lead to addiction. Nationally, the number of opioid prescriptions jumped nearly 140 percent between the mid-1990s and 2013, from 87 million to 207 million. In Massachusetts alone, more than 4.6 million prescriptions for painkillers were written in 2014. That is one prescription for nearly every adult in Massachusetts, state officials pointed out.

Meanwhile, four of every five new heroin addicts first abused prescription drugs, possibly given to them after a sporting injury or a car accident, according to DEA officials. Deaths from opioid-related overdoses more than doubled in Massachusetts between 2011 and 2014; more than 1,250 people are believed to have died from overdoses in 2014.

Michael Ferguson, special agent in charge of the DEA in New England, said officials acknowledge that prescription painkillers serve a medical purpose, but they want to target doctors and pharmacists who willingly and knowingly prescribe and dispense medications to people who should not be receiving them, or who have been proven to abuse them.

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Last month, Healey's office charged a Ludlow physician with illegally prescribing opioids for no legitimate medical purposes; some of those patients had documented substance abuse issues.

State officials also acknowledged the difficulty in proving that doctors abuse their discretion. In May 2015, a Needham doctor was acquitted of federal drug-dealing charges — after the first jury to hear the case was hung — even though authorities had argued that he recklessly prescribed medications to people he knew were abusing them.

The initiative could raise concerns in the medical community, which has sought to defend a doctor's discretion in deciding how to care for patients.

However, Dennis M. Dimitri, a medical doctor and president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, wrote in a statement Monday that his group supports the initiative to eliminate "inappropriate prescribing and opioid abuse and misuse."

"We know that the vast majority of physicians prescribe carefully and ethically," Dimitri wrote.

John McNeil, first assistant for the US attorney's office in Boston, said the task force can decide whether to bring state charges, federal charges, or have public health officials probe whether there are Medicaid abuses. Officials can also file civil complaints or seek fines or license revocations.


Milton J. Valencia
can be reached at mvalencia@globe.com.

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