Catch of the Week – Justice Department Sues Tennessee Pharmacies and Pharmacists Illegally Dispensing Opioids
On Friday, the Justice Department announced that it has sued several pharmacies and pharmacists in Tennessee to stop them from illegally dispensing opioids. According to the complaint, both defendants have “fueled and profited from” the opioid epidemic by “repeatedly dispensing opioids and other controlled substances prone to abuse without a legitimate medical purpose and outside the usual course of professional medical practice.” The complaint alleges violations of the Controlled Substances Act and the False Claims Act.
In October 2017, President Trump and the Secretary of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency under federal law. More than 116 Americans died every day from an opioid-related overdose in 2016. And, just a few weeks ago, the National Safety Council reported that a person in the United States is now more likely to die from an accidental opioid overdose than from a car crash.
To help address the public health emergency, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions created the Department of Justice Prescription Interdiction & Litigation (PIL) Task Force in February 2018. The PIL Task Force’s mandate was to coordinate criminal and civil law enforcement efforts and use existing tools, including the False Claims Act, to stem the tide of overdoses. The PIL Task Force has also expanded the efforts of the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which the government created in 2017 to use data analysis to identify and prosecute individuals perpetuating the opioid epidemic.
The recently-announced Tennessee action represents the fruit of these efforts. The complaint recounts in detail the defendants’ alleged dispensing of opioids in the face of obvious red flags that the recipients were either abusing or diverting the prescriptions to others for abuse. According to the complaint, the pharmacies routinely dispensed pills to patients who traveled unusual distances to receive them and often paid in cash. Medicare paid for many of the allegedly unlawfully-dispensed drugs, giving rise to potential liability under the False Claims Act.
The Tennessee lawsuit is just one among several seeking to hold accountable those contributing to the opioid epidemic. Last June, for example, the Justice Department charged hundreds of medical professionals in connection with unlawful opioid prescription and distribution. As the Department acknowledges, these lawsuits serve the dual-purposes of protecting public health and stopping fraud on the country’s healthcare programs.