Attorney General Sessions Announces New Federal Opioids Taskforce

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced Tuesday, Feb. 27, the formation of a new task force aimed at opioid manufacturers and distributors.

The "Prescription Interdiction & Litigation Task Force" will team civil and criminal law enforcement officials in an effort to focus on how opioid manufacturers and distributors contribute to the opioid crisis. That focus will include looking at whether "opioid manufacturers are marketing their products truthfully and in accordance with Food and Drug Administration rules."

Sessions also said in a DOJ statement that the task force would "examine existing state and local government lawsuits against opioid manufacturers to determine what assistance, if any, federal law can provide in those lawsuits. The federal government has borne substantial costs from the opioid crisis, and it must be compensated by any party whose illegal activity contributed to those costs."

While the new task force is focused on drug makers and distributors, it will also look at the behavior of
pharmacies, clinics, drug testing facilities, and doctors regarding opioids and unlawful actions.

The federal task force will include officials from the DOJ as well as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services, according to Sessions.

In 2016, 63,600 people died in opioid related deaths in the U.S. according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Besides the task force, the DOJ also announced that it intends to file a Statement of Interest in a multi-district legal action which includes hundreds of lawsuits against opioid drug makers and distributors brought by cities, counties and states from all over the country. "The Justice Department will primarily argue that the federal government-through various federal health programs and law enforcement efforts-has borne substantial costs from the opioid epidemic and seeks reimbursement."

A federal court in Ohio has joined cases brought against drug makers Purdue Pharma, Endo International plc (ENDP)  , Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. (TEVA) , Johnson & Johnson Inc. (JNJ) , and Allergan plc. (AGN)  . Drug distributors such as Cardinal Health Inc. (CAH) , McKesson Corp. (MCK) and AmerisourceBergen Corp. (ABC)  have also been sued over their alleged roles in the opioid crisis.

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The DOJ did not respond to questions regarding the statement of interest and whether it was tied to the Ohio case.

The task force and statement of interest comes as a surprise given the pace at which the Trump administration has attacked the opioid crisis. While President Trump was campaigning, he promised voters in Ohio, a state where opioids has taken a deadly toll, that he would battle the problem. Once he was in office, he promised to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency. It took months for the declaration to become a reality, but even then no funding was made available to take action. The emergency status lapsed in January.

A commission was formed to study the opioid crisis and that commission issued a report last year. But to date none of its recommendations have been taken up.

Democratic senators Patty Murray, Wash., and Elizabeth Warren, Mass., asked the Government Accountability Office in January to probe the White House over its response to the opioid scourge. It is unknown whether the GAO has actually taken up an investigation.

And Trump placed Kellyanne Conway in charge of his administration's opioids agenda. Conway has no healthcare or drug policy experience and is a career pollster and political operative.

The commitment by the federal government to pursue criminal action regarding opioids has been questioned in recent months. Last December, the Washington Post and 60 Minutes teamed up on a report that alleged that McKesson, the San Francisco-based drug distributor, had been careless in its distribution and sale of opioids. The DEA wanted to bring a criminal case against McKesson and felt there was more than enough evidence for a conviction. But the case never saw the inside of a courtroom as federal prosecutors refused to file. Instead, the DOJ huddled with lawyers representing McKesson and negotiated a settlement that included a $150 million fine and a suspension involving four of the distributor's warehouses. McKesson also had to hire an independent monitor.

The DEA complained about the case in the media while the DOJ maintained radio silence.

McKesson said it hadn't done anything wrong and said the reporting had been inaccurate.

In 2007, federal and state agencies brought charges against Purdue Pharma, the company that created the original opioid-based pain meds. Purdue paid $470 million to settle allegations that included criminal charges.

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