A new U.S. government task force is getting attention for its dedication to stopping the U.S. opioid epidemic by cracking down on drug-dealing doctors and their so-called “pill mills” in a faster and more efficient manner than ever before.
A report from the Associated Press (via the Allentown Morning Call) took a look at the first indictment recorded by the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, and the events that led up to it. For about a year, Dr. Andrzej Zielke’s pain clinic at the Richland Mall in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania, had treated scores of patients, many of whom had reportedly traveled “hundreds of miles” to get prescriptions for opioid-based painkillers. Many opioid users would wait long hours outside Zielke’s office, with some patients even sleeping in the waiting room. The report also noted that one of the doctor’s patients had fatally overdosed.
Zielke was arrested in October 2017, as officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement Agency raided his Medical Frontiers clinic, which ostensibly offered a “comprehensive and holistic approach to medicine” and non-invasive medical procedures, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A representative from the Allegheny Health Network told the publication that it was no surprise that the FBI and DEA raided the clinic, as she observed that most of his patients “always looked like they were really stoned.”
Speaking to the Associated Press, Zielke denied allegations that he operated a “pill mill” by prescribing opioid painkillers, even if patients didn’t really need them. He maintained that he specializes in alternative medicine, adding that several patients stopped dropping by his clinic after he “cut down on pain pills.”
Zielke’s arrest and indictment helped get the ball rolling for the federal Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, a task force whose roster includes officials from 12 regions across the United States. The unit relies on various forms of data from the Justice Department, including prescription drug databases, coroner’s records, and Medicaid and Medicare statistics, and as further explained by the AP report, the data also tells officials which doctors prescribe opioids most frequently, the distance patients travel to visit their supposed “pill mills,” and if any of these patients died within 60 days of being prescribed opioid painkillers.
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According to federal prosecutor Robert Cessar, the new system is faster and more accurate than the conventional means of busting drug-dealing doctors, which oftentimes required officials to rely on statements from “erratic” informants or to settle for whatever limited information is available.
“This data 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.”
Although President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have been working closely to fight America’s ongoing drug abuse problem, particularly the growing number of opioid-related deaths, their efforts have often been criticized for not doing enough to tackle the problem at large. But with the DOJ’s new approach to cracking down on drug-dealing doctors, government prosecutors are confident in the task force’s success, with their newfangled data analysis blended with “old-fashioned detective work” to back up what the analysis may suggest.
The government’s ongoing effort to crack down on drug-dealing doctors and pill mill operators has received its share of critical comments from medical professionals, who believe the initiative may be detrimental to doctors who have valid reasons to prescribe opioids to their patients.
In an interview with the Associated Press, University of Alabama addiction researcher Stefan Kertesz said that these efforts may cause physicians who otherwise make an honest living to stop prescribing opioids to disabled patients who need them. He believes that this could drive these patients toward harder forms of illegal drugs, or worse, to commit suicide. This was a sentiment shared by Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing founder Dr. Andrew Kolodny, who told AP that the government should focus on addiction prevention and treatment, and crack down instead on the “bigger fish,” meaning legal narcotics distributors and wholesalers.