Mass. AG announces task force in opioid abuse fight

In this Nov. 24, 2015, photo, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey speaks during an event where Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation at the Statehouse in Boston to battle deadly opioid abuse. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

BOSTON (AP) — State and federal law enforcement agencies pledged Wednesday to band together to crack down on doctors and other health care providers who illegally prescribe or dispense opioid painkillers.

Attorney General Maura Healey said the overprescribing of opioids is contributing to the spike in overdoses and deaths in Massachusetts.

On Wednesday, Healey announced her office has formed a task force with the FBI, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other state agencies to share information and collaborate on investigations. She said the number of opioid prescriptions in Massachusetts has increased by 140 percent since the mid-1990s, with 4.6 million prescriptions given out last year.

The announcement came as the state Department of Public Health released updated opioid overdose numbers. Officials said there were nearly 1,100 confirmed cases of unintentional opioid overdose deaths in 2014. That’s a 65 percent increase from the 668 confirmed cases in 2012 and a 21 percent jump from the 911 cases in 2013.

Officials say preliminary data for January 2015 through September 2015 also suggest a higher number of overdose deaths than during the same period the year before. They cautioned that the 2015 estimates could change as they receive additional information, including final causes of death from the medical examiner’s office.

“We all know we are in the midst of a terrible crisis,” Healey, a Democrat, said at an afternoon news conference in her office. “This is about protecting public safety, protecting public health.”

Healey said that while the majority of doctors and other health care professionals are acting responsibly, a small number are responsible for illegal overprescribing.

Healey pointed to the case of a Ludlow doctor her office charged last year with prescribing opioids to patients, some of whom had documented substance abuse issues, for no legitimate medical purpose. Dr. Fernando Jayma has denied the charges.

Officials said there are some red flags to alert them to potential criminal behavior, including doctors who are prescribing outside their specialties or doctors who are routinely prescribing to patients who must travel long distances to get to their offices.

Investigators can also look to see if people who have died from overdoses received prescriptions from the same doctor.

Assistant U.S. Attorney John McNeil acknowledged that successfully proving in court that a doctor has crossed a line from simply prescribing a large number of pills into criminal behavior can be tough.

But he said even if a criminal prosecution is unsuccessful, doctors can still end up losing their licenses.

Healey’s actions come as the Democrat-controlled state Legislature is working to get an opioid abuse bill to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who has proposed his own legislation.

The Massachusetts House last week approved a bill that would limit initial opiate painkiller prescriptions to seven-day supplies.

Dr. Dennis Dimitri, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said the physicians’ group supports the effort to eliminate inappropriate prescribing and opioid abuse. He said the group has issued opioid prescribing guidelines and made educational courses available on its website. He said those efforts have improved safe prescribing habits.

“We know that the vast majority of physicians prescribe carefully and ethically,” Dimitri said in statement Wednesday. “At the same time we acknowledge that a very small number of physicians may be involved in inappropriate prescribing.”

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