US authorities slapped 412 doctors, nurses and other medical professionals with fraud charges today, many of them for overprescribing opioids that have stoked an expanding national addiction crisis.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the charges amid what he called "the deadliest drug crisis in our history," with close to 60,000 people killed by overdoses last year.
The charges involve doctors and others accused of operating pill mills that pump heavily addictive opioids like oxycodone into the streets through illegal prescription schemes.
The charges also target people said to have bilked the government-run Medicaid and Medicare health insurance programs for services that were never delivered, including addict rehabilitation programs, and for prescribing unnecessary drugs to patients in order to overbill the government.
In all, government losses on false billings in the fraud schemes totaled USD 1.3 billion, the Justice Department said.
"Too many trusted medical professionals like doctors, nurses and pharmacists have chosen to violate their oaths and put greed ahead of their patients," Sessions said.
"Amazingly, some have made their practices into multimillion-dollar criminal enterprises. They seem oblivious to the disastrous consequences of their greed."
Those charged include 56 medical doctors, six of them part of a Michigan scheme that allegedly prescribed unnecessary opioids to patients and sent USD 164 million in false and fraudulent claims to Medicaid.
One Houston doctor pumped out 2.5 million doses of hydrocodone and other drugs illegally as addicts and organized gangs lined up at her pain clinic daily to purchase prescriptions.
And a Palm Beach, Florida rehabilitation facility allegedly billed the government for USD 58 million while never providing the services to addicts. Instead, the government said, the facility simply recruited addicts to use their names for billings by providing them gift cards, visits to strip clubs, and even drugs.
The barely controlled pumping of hundreds of millions of doses of opioids into US communities during the past decade is blamed for a sharp surge in addiction, with an estimated two million to three million people hooked on prescription painkillers or heroin, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
Last year, overdose deaths surged at least 19 percent to more than 59,000, according to preliminary estimates.
States and counties around the country are suing both the manufacturers and distributors of prescription opioids for fueling the addiction epidemic by ignoring suspect surges in orders that cannot be justified by local patient populations.
On Tuesday the Justice Department fined drug manufacturer Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals $35 million for supplying and not reporting suspiciously massive orders of its highly addictive oxycodone in the 2000s.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said today that US doctors and hospitals vastly overprescribe painkillers -- even if most do so legally -- thereby stoking the surge in addiction. He said action is needed to cut back.
In today's crackdown, 120 of the 412 were charged with opioid-related crimes, while many of the others had links to the crisis through false billing and other fraudulent practices.