With recent data indicating that 2016 was the highest year yet for overdose rates in an ongoing national opioid abuse crisis (with opioids accounting for more than 42,000 deaths in 2016 alone, or 66% of all drug overdoses), the Department of Justice has announced it is shifting its focus to increased “early detection” measures aimed at intervening earlier in the process.
Much of the discussion surrounding the increase in deaths tied to opioids involves stemming the tide of unnecessary, but legal prescriptions, in addition to combating the spread of unregulated substances such as heroin and fentanyl.
Specifically, according to the Associated Press, “the department is providing a trove of data to the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which draws together authorities in 12 regions across the country, that shows which doctors are prescribing the most, how far patients will travel to see them and whether any have died within 60 days of receiving one of their prescriptions, among other information.”
Experts say the changes will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to have a view into suspicious instances of doctors overprescribing opioids.
Robert Cessar, a career federal prosecutor interviewed by The Associated Press, said the increased information provided to the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit “shines a light we’ve never had before. We don’t need to have confidential informants on the street to start a case. Now, we have someone behind a computer screen who is helping us. That has to put (doctors) on notice that we have new tools.”
However, the increased focus on such enforcement is not without downsides, claims Stefan Kersatz, an addiction researcher at the University of Alabama, who warned that the issue is not as clear-cut as it may initially seem, stating that an increased focus on such enforcement actions can also “cause law-abiding physicians to abandon disabled patients who rely on prescriptions, for fear of being shut down, noting that those patients will often turn to harder street drugs (thus exacerbating the crisis) or even kill themselves.
“The professional risk for physicians is so high that the natural tendency is to get out of the business of prescription opioids at all,” Kersatz said.
Dr. Andrew Kolodny, the founder of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, was similarly skeptical of the new effort’s likely efficacy, saying, “It’s just not really going to have that much of an impact on an epidemic,” before boldly asserting that authorities “should go after the bigger fish…. the legal narcotics distributors and wholesalers who have literally been getting away with mass manslaughter.”