The opioid epidemic in the United States is causing the Justice Department to implement an aggressive new strategy.
The federal government is cracking down big time on doctors who are irresponsibly prescribing painkillers, and particularly opioids, as a major drug epidemic grips the country. The Justice Department’s Opioid Fruad and Abuse Detection Unit is implementing a new strategy that will involve combing drug and health care data to stop over-prescribing doctors in their tracks, according to reports.
The unit just made an indictment of a doctor in Pittsburgh who prescribed painkillers to many people who had no need for the drugs, authorities allege. Opioids are particularly dangerous because they are very addictive, easy to overdose on, and patients quickly need larger and larger doses of the drug to get the same “high.”
However, some are questioning this prosecutorial strategy, saying that it may discourage doctors from prescribing opioid painkillers to people who really need them out of fear of prosecution. But proponents of an aggressive strategy say the opioid epidemic has grown into too much of a problem to ignore.
The following is a Justice Department statement from October and the prosecution of the Pittsburgh doctor.
A suburban Pittsburgh physician has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Pittsburgh on charges of conspiracy and unlawfully distributing controlled substances, Acting United States Attorney Soo C. Song announced today. The indictment of Andrzej Kazimierz Zielke, 62, is the first since Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the formation of the Opioid and Abuse Detection Unit, a Department of Justice initiative that uses data to target and prosecute individuals that are contributing to the nation’s opioid crisis.
“Today we are facing the worst drug crisis in American history, with one American dying of a drug overdose every nine minutes,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “An unprecedented crisis like this one demands an unprecedented response—and that’s why President Trump has made this a top priority for this administration,” Sessions said. “This summer, I designated a dozen of our top federal prosecutors to focus solely on the problem of opioid-related health care fraud in places where the epidemic was at its worst–including Western Pennsylvania. These cases take on the supply of drugs and stop fraudsters from exploiting people suffering from addiction. Today, as President Trump unveils his plan to fight the opioid epidemic, we have filed the first charges by these prosecutors. We will file many more charges in the months to come—because the Department of Justice will be relentless in hunting down drug dealers and turning the tide of this epidemic.”
“Western Pennsylvania is experiencing some of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the nation,” added Acting U.S. Attorney Song. “In response, we in law enforcement aggressively target drug traffickers – both those who distribute on the street, and those who traffic under the guise of physicians writing excessive prescriptions.”
“Opioid-related health care fraud is a serious problem facing the Western Pennsylvania area today,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Robert Johnson. “Doctors who betray their trust and authority for their own financial gain by prescribing Schedule II narcotics for purposes other than medical reasons are contributing to our nation’s opioid crisis. This indictment is indicative of the FBI’s intent to employ substantial resources to combat this national epidemic. The FBI Pittsburgh Division will continue to work with our law enforcement partners in a unified effort to address the local effects of this national trend.”
According to the 14-count indictment that was returned on October 24, Zielke is a medical doctor who owned and operated Medical Frontiers, which advertised as a holistic pain management practice, located in Gibsonia, Pennsylvania. The indictment alleges that on 13 occasions Zielke prescribed Schedule II narcotics – Oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine sulfate and methadone – outside the usual course of professional practice and not for legitimate medical purpose. The indictment also alleges that Zielke conspired with others to distribute Schedule II narcotics. On October 5, Zielke was arrested on a criminal complaint. The complaint alleges that Dr. Zielke engaged in a pattern of illegally prescribing opioid painkillers to patients with no legitimate medical purpose and without examination, evaluation or testing.
According to the criminal complaint:
Agents began investigating his practice based on information they received that Dr. Zielke was writing a large number of oxycodone prescriptions for people residing in the McKeesport, Pennsylvania area, and that some of these pills were being obtained by a narcotics dealer.
According to accounts of former employees and patients, Dr. Zielke charged approximately $250 cash for office visits and many of his patients traveled long distances to see him.
On October 11, 2017, the Pennsylvania State Board of Medicine issued a Temporary Suspension of Dr. Zielke’s license to practice medicine and surgery.
The law provides for a maximum total sentence of 20 years in prison, a fine of $1 million, or both, for each count of the indictment. Under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the actual sentence imposed would be based upon the seriousness of the offenses and the prior criminal history, if any, of the defendant.
Assistant United States Attorney Robert S. Cessar is prosecuting this case on behalf of the government.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Inspector General, United States Postal Inspection Service, the Internal Revenue Service – Criminal Investigations, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Pennsylvania Department of State, Bureau of Enforcement and Investigation, conducted the investigation leading to the indictment in this case.
An indictment is an accusation. A defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.