ELLSWORTH — Medical providers and pharmacists engaged in illegal prescriptions are on notice with a June 30 launch of the New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force.
The strike force is a collaboration between the FBI, DEA and U.S. attorneys’ offices for Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire along with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General.
The mission is to “identify and investigate health care fraud schemes in New England to effectively and efficiently prosecute individuals involved in the illegal distribution of prescription opioids and other controlled substances,” according to a joint press release.
Illicit street drugs tend to get the most attention, but the reality is that opiate addiction almost always starts with a workplace injury or a surgery for which opiates are prescribed for pain relief, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine Darcie McElwee said during a post-press conference interview.
The group will use data to identify potential geographic areas where illegal prescriptions are being issued.
McElwee said the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice “cross-pollinated” data of overdose deaths with “overprescribers.” When they find those numbers to be high in both categories, authorities know that fraud may be at work.
The strongest cases originate with help from monitoring systems, the U.S. attorney said.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services track prescriptions and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention operates a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.
“So, they’re able to see the outliers,” McElwee said.
Investigators also rely on former employees, whistleblowers, community members and patients to share information about certain medical professionals they think are engaged in fraud, she said.
During a press conference held in New Hampshire last week, someone questioned whether innocent care providers might be unduly targeted by the strike force.
“These are not gray areas,” explained Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. “These are the worst of the worst in terms of opioid prescription pills being poured out into our communities.”
Polite said the targets include physicians selling pills in parking lots in exchange for sex.
The assistant attorney general described the case of one physician who had lost his license in one state due to prescription fraud only to relocate and continue to overprescribe opiates in another state.
It isn’t clear whether Polite was speaking about former Blue Hill physician Dr. Brandt Rice, who was barred from practicing medicine in Maine and eventually relocated to Maryland, where he has also been prohibited from practicing.
Authorities said that in the first three years, 2009 to 2012, of Rice’s operation of his medical clinic, Coastal Family Medicine on South Street, he distributed 55,900 opiate pills.
Police in Montgomery County, Md., said that in 2017, Rice collected 11,600 thirty-milligram tablets of oxycodone for a fake patient – an average of 225 tablets a week.
The New England partnership is the second regional strike force, Polite said. “The first was in the Appalachian area. This will follow in the footsteps of that regional model.”