- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Justice Department will create a task force to target prescription opioid abuse in the Appalachian region, as part of a series of measures to fight a drug epidemic that has claimed the lives of 72,000 Americans, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said Thursday.

Dubbed the Appalachian Regional Prescription Strike Force, the group will be composed of 12 new opioid fraud prosecutors bolstered by a team of law enforcement agents. It will operate in southern Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, areas that have been hit hard by the opioid crisis.

“They will help us find doctors, pharmacists and professionals of all kinds who are flooding our streets with drugs and put them behind bars,” Mr. Sessions said at the Justice Department’s first National Opioid Summit. “We cannot allow this to continue. We will be relentless. We will continue to get smarter and better at our work.”

The strike force will use resources from the department’s Health Care Fraud Unit, the U.S. attorneys for nine federal districts in five states and law enforcement agents at the FBI, Office of Inspector General, Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It will also work closely with investigators from the U.S. Postal Service, IRS and state Medicaid fraud units.

Operating out of two hubs, one in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky and another in Nashville, Tennessee, the strike force will support law enforcement agents in five districts.

The announcement comes one day after President Trump signed sweeping opioids legislation into law to mark “a year of action” by the administration to fight the epidemic. Among the bill’s features are provisions aimed at promoting research to find new, non-addictive drugs for pain medicine and expand access to treatment for substance-abuse disorders for Medicaid patients.

Mr. Trump signed the bill Wednesday to mark the one-year anniversary since his administration declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency.

More than 72,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in 2017, a 7 percent increase from 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Opioids were linked to 49,000 off those deaths.

“The stakes have never been higher,” Mr. Sessions said. “We’ve never seen the challenge we have today, but our determination has never been higher.”

Mr. Sessions said some progress has been made. He cited Drug Enforcement Administration statistics that show a 12 percent decline in the number of opioid prescriptions during the first five months of 2018 compared to the same period last

Also on Thursday, Mr. Sessions announced the Justice Department will allocate $70 million to battle the opioid epidemic on two fronts.

Roughly $35 million will be awarded to law enforcement agencies combating the manufacturing and distribution of methamphetamines and prescription opioids. The other half will be used to provide victim services to children who have been impacted by the opioid crisis.

The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services granted more than $27.8 million to 17 state law enforcement agency task forces to investigate the distribution of heroin or the unlawful distribution of prescription opioids.

An additional $7.2 million will be awarded to nine state law enforcement agencies that have seized numerous methamphetamine labs.

Among the money allocated for children’s services, $29.8 million was granted to 41 sites and a technical assistance provider. The money is in addition to $4.8 million in funds transferred from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to support partnerships between victim service providers and first responders who encounter an overdose where children are present.

In addition, the money will fund school-based programs, foster care and child welfare programs, counseling and assistance programs, child advocacy programs and civil legal services, the department said.

The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services granted more than $27.8 million to 17 state law enforcement agency task forces to investigate the distribution of heroin or the unlawful distribution of prescription opioids.

“These measures take us one step closer to bringing this crisis to an end,” Mr. Sessions said in a statement ahead of the department’s National Opioid Summit.

The $70 million awarded Thursday is in addition to the $320 million the department allocated earlier this month to agencies across the country to help with prevention, treatment and enforcement.

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