In collaboration with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and other federal law enforcement agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been aggressively targeting health care providers suspected of improperly prescribing and dispensing opioid medications. This renewed focus began with the DOJ’s announcement of a new Opioid Fraud and Detection Unit last August and gained further traction when President Trump declared the nation’s opioid crisis a public health emergency in October.
According to the DEA, its efforts are paying off. On April 2, 2018, the agency released a public announcement entitled “DEA surge in drug diversion investigations leads to 28 arrests and 147 revoked registrations.” The announcement discusses the agency’s recent efforts to combat prescription drug fraud with a particular emphasis on opioid diversion and abuse.
DEA Targets Prescribers and Pharmacies in Opioid Crackdown
As stated in the announcement, one of the DEA’s primary efforts in cracking down on opioid fraud and abuse involves targeting prescribers and pharmacies suspected of playing a role in putting opioid medications in the hands of drug-dependent individuals:
“For 45 days in February and March, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration surged its enforcement and administrative resources to identify and investigate prescribers and pharmacies that dispensed disproportionately large amounts of drugs. The ultimate goal of the surge was remediating or removing those whose actions perpetuate the controlled prescription drug crisis in America, particularly opioid drugs.”
The announcement goes on to state that DEA personnel analyzed 80 million transactions conducted by DEA registrants, and also relied on information supplied by the public and other federal agencies. This effort led to 188 active investigations which ultimately resulted in 28 arrests, a total of 337 administrative actions, and revocation of 147 DEA registrations.
It appears that similar efforts may soon follow. According to the DEA’s Acting Administrator, the surge effort established “an effective roadmap to proactively target illicit diversion of dangerous pharmaceuticals” and “[the] DEA will continue to aggressively use this targeting playbook in continuing operations.”
Notable Takeaways for Physicians, Pharmacists, and Others Dealing in Opioid Medications
For physicians, pharmacists, and others dealing in opioid medications, there are several notable takeaways from the DEA’s recent “surge” effort. These include:
- The Government’s Focus on Opioid Fraud Is Real. While some government initiatives never come to fruition, it is clear that the government is taking active steps to combat opioid fraud and abuse. This includes (perhaps primarily), targeting health care providers suspected of contributing, in one way or another, to the nation’s opioid epidemic.
- The DEA Is Targeting Providers Nationwide. When the DOJ announced the formation of its new Opioid Fraud and Detection Unit last summer, it stated that it was focusing its efforts in twelve specific regions of the country. The DEA’s recent surge effort involved investigations by each of its 22 field divisions nationwide. As a result, providers in all geographic regions have reason for concern and should be taking appropriate steps to ensure their compliance with the applicable prescription and program billing regulations.
- The DEA Relies Heavily on Data Analytics to Identify Targets for Opioid Fraud Investigations. During its surge effort, the DEA focused on providers that “dispensed disproportionately large amounts of drugs.” Of course, while a high prescription volume may be indicative of fraud, this is certainly not always the case. The DEA, like other federal agencies, is relying heavily on data analytics to identify targets for its opioid fraud investigations. This unfortunately means that many legitimate and law-abiding providers will be caught in its crosshairs.
- The DEA, DOJ, and Other Agencies Are Working Together. In its announcement, the DEA references the “tremendous leadership and support” it received from the DOJ. In health care fraud investigations, it is common for multiple agencies to work together. And the DEA routinely gets involved in investigations initiated by other agencies that involve allegations of prescription drug fraud.
- The Consequences of DEA Opioid Fraud Investigations Can Be Severe. Losing a DEA registration can have devastating consequences for health care providers, and an arrest for prescription drug fraud can lead to substantial fines and long-term imprisonment. Providers convicted of prescription drug fraud can face program exclusion, license suspension or revocation, and various other penalties as well.
What to Do If Your Business or Practice Is Being Targeted in a DEA Investigation
If your health care business or practice is being targeted by the DEA, you must take appropriate steps to protect your right to practice and potentially to protect your freedom. While it is important to obtain personalized legal advice as soon as possible, these steps generally include:
- ensuring that your personnel do not speak with investigators or share any documents with special agents except on the advice of counsel.
- preserving any records that may potentially be relevant to the DEA’s investigation, as destroying records could lead to additional charges.
- determining the nature of the DEA’s investigation. Did the DEA initiate the investigation independently, or are other agencies (such as the DOJ or the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG)) involved?
- conducting an internal assessment to identify any potential issues and developing and executing appropriate corrective measures without unnecessarily triggering further government inquiry.
- engaging legal counsel to represent you in communications with the DEA, and to assist you in mitigating your potential civil, criminal, or administrative exposure.
About Oberheiden & McMurrey, LLP
Oberheiden & McMurrey, LLP is a healthcare fraud defense firm with a nationwide presence. The firm’s attorneys include well-respected defense lawyers and former federal prosecutors – many of whom have decades of experience in DEA matters. We routinely represent physicians, pharmacists, and other health care providers in federal audits, investigations, prosecutions, and administrative proceedings. We have a proven track record of protecting our clients against unnecessary consequences.
If you, your business, or your medical practice is being targeted by a DEA opioid fraud investigation, we encourage you to contact us promptly to discuss your case. Your initial consultation is completely free and confidential, and you can reach us 24/7. To speak with an attorney at Oberheiden & McMurrey, LLP, call (888) 519-4897 or request an appointment online now.
This information has been prepared for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. This information may constitute attorney advertising in some jurisdictions. Reading of this information does not create an attorney-client relationship. Prior results cannot guarantee a similar future outcome in your case. Oberheiden & McMurrey, LLP is a Texas LLP with headquarters in Dallas. Mr. Oberheiden limits his practice to federal law.