U.S. launches opioid fraud and detection unit

(Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions unveiled on Wednesday a plan to go after doctors and pharmacies suspected of healthcare fraud by over-prescribing and unbridled distribution of addictive pain medications known as opioids.

In a speech at a Columbus, Ohio, police academy, Sessions said a new Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit pilot program would also study death rates of patients with opioid prescriptions.

“With these new resources, we will be better positioned to identify, prosecute and convict some of the individuals contributing to these tens of thousands of deaths a year,” Sessions said in prepared remarks.

He said the new program would pay for 12 assistant U.S. attorneys serving three-year terms to investigate and prosecute fraud in the prescribing of opioids.

Deaths from opioids have surged in the United States.

In 2015, prescription painkillers and heroin killed more than 33,000 people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of those overdoses involved prescription pain medications.

Sessions has made a priority of fighting drug-related crimes since taking over the U.S. Justice Department in February. It shut down AlphaBay, a dark web marketplace accused of facilitating a global trade in drugs as well as firearms and computer hacking tools.

Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Howard Goller