Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Thursday that federal prosecutors have charged more than 400 people in taking part in medical fraud and opioid scams that totaled $1.3 billion in fraudulent billing.
Sessions said that 412 individuals will be prosecuted by his office in what he called the ‘largest health care fraud takedown operation in American history' during a press conference in Washington.
Sessions noted that the case involves doctors, nurses and pharmacists that ‘have chosen to violate their oaths and put greed ahead of their patients.'
Among those charged are six Michigan doctors accused of a scheme to prescribe unnecessary opioids. A Florida rehab facility is alleged to have recruited addicts with gift cards and visits to strip clubs, leading to $58 million in false treatments and tests.
Officials said those charged in the schemes include more than 120 people involved in illegally prescribing and distributing narcotic painkillers.
Such prescription opioids are behind the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in US history.
More than 52,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2015 – a record – and experts believe the numbers have continued to rise.
‘In some cases, we had addicts packed into standing-room-only waiting rooms waiting for these prescriptions,' acting FBI director Andrew McCabe said. ‘They are a death sentence, plain and simple.'
HOW DO OPIOID SCAMS WORK?
The opioid crisis – which led to the deaths of 59,000 Americans in 2016 – was spearheaded by pharmaceutical companies that manufacture highly addictive drugs.
These companies managed to convince physicians and other pharmacists that they had created drugs – such as Oxycontin and Vicodin – which could treat pain but were not addictive. These doctors then overprescribed the medications to the poor and elderly and billed the federal government.
They targeted hospitals in disadvantages areas, perhaps on the hope that the less educated were more likely to take their doctor's word for it. According to the Center for Disease Control, whites earning between $20,000 and $50,000 were the most affected.
They also conducted self-seeking research projects in order to distribute inaccurate data to doctors and researchers.
These companies didn't stop there. The masterminds paid representatives who helped them increase their sales. In West Virginia alone, they sold 780,000,000 hydrocodone and oxycodone pills between 2007 and 2012.
One of such companies was Purdue, a company that has earned $35 billion dollars from Oxycontin alone. The pharmaceutical company's owners, the Sackler family, made a net worth of $14 billion at the end of 2015.
While there are rules which require drug distributors and pharmacists to report abnormal orders of controlled medications, regulators didn't detect this loophole in their system.
In fact, this opioid scam, which has been in effect for at least ten years, didn't come to light until disadvantaged and middle class whites began dying in their numbers.
Nearly 300 health care providers are being suspended or banned from participating in federal health care programs, Sessions said.
‘They seem oblivious to the disastrous consequences of their greed. Their actions not only enrich themselves, often at the expense of taxpayers, but also feed addictions and cause addictions to start,' Sessions said.
Health care fraud sweeps like Thursday's happen each year across the country, but law enforcement officials continue to grapple over the best way to fight the problem.
The people charged were illegally billing Medicare, Medicaid and the health insurance program that serves members of the armed forces, retired service members and their families, the Justice Department said.
The allegations include claims that those charged billed the programs for unnecessary drugs that were never purchased or given to the patients.
‘Why is it they have lost hope?': How the opioid crisis became rampant in America
The opioid crisis in America most likely began in the 1990s, a time when about a 100 million people – a third of America's population – were suffering from chronic pain.
The federal government and drug companies thus began increasing the production of painkillers.
But as these drugs increased in quantity, so did the potency. About one in six drugs, by 2002, were more powerful than morphine.
There was an increased demand of these highly addictive drugs as patients began to use them recreationally to get a high. Doctors prescribed more, and for those who couldn't access the painkillers in hospitals, they looked elsewhere – the streets.
Drug cartels flooded to America to meet the rising demand, often selling heroin, an illegal opioid which was more powerful and cheaper. The states most affected were Maryland, Florida, Pennsylvania and Maine.
‘There has to be an answer to why they are becoming addicted to a greater degree,' Health and Human Services secretary, Tom Price, said. ‘Why is it they have lost hope? What is going on in our society?'
Close to 66,000 died last year from drug overdoses while 33,000 died in 2015 – the largest yearly jump in the US.