Friday, June 22, 2018
Opinion

Column: On opioid data, the devil is in the details

The talk that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions gave when he visited Tampa on Wednesday about the scourge of the opioid epidemic will resonate with the thousands of Tampa Bay area residents who have been affected, or know someone affected, by this devastating health crisis.

In his speech, Sessions highlighted law enforcement’s critical work in combatting "those who act in bad faith." He mentioned going after drug dealers who peddle drugs on the streets. He talked about more novel approaches, such as targeting those who hawk their drugs on the dark web.

Of particular interest, Sessions highlighted the Department of Justice’s role in investigating and prosecuting opioid-related health care fraud. He noted that the Tampa district was one of 12 across the country where an experienced prosecutor was assigned to "focus solely" on wrong-doers in the opioid health care space. As he described it, this focus on health care providers is limited solely to the nefarious individuals who act in bad faith.

In mentioning this aspect of Justice’s focus, Sessions talked in detail about a new data analytics program — the Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit. In Sessions’ words, he "created this unit to focus specifically on opioid-related health care fraud — using data to identify and prosecute abusers. This sort of data analytics team can tell us important information — like who is prescribing the most drugs, who is dispensing the most drugs, and whose patients are dying of overdoses."

As recently departed prosecutors at the Department of Justice here in Florida, we know firsthand that there are indeed wrong-doers out there. Indeed, we were at the forefront of using data in identifying leads and determining who might be up to no good. We routinely used data analytics to help identify potential bad actors. But, we caution our former colleagues about relying too heavily on data to identify potential wrong-doers. As in most cases, the devil lies in the details with data.

Having seen the myriad uses of data, we understand that certain physicians stand out in prescribing opioids. Many stand out for obvious and explainable reasons. So, simply looking at "who is prescribing the most drugs, (and) who is dispensing the most drugs" — is an incomplete metric. It would be little surprise, for example, that pain management doctors would be more likely to prescribe opioids than, say, podiatrists.

Likewise, looking at data in a vacuum often ignores real details. There are many more Medicare patients in the Tampa Bay area than other parts of the nation. Similarly, there are many more surgery centers in Florida than elsewhere. Thus, the fact that certain prescribers might see more Medicare patients than their peers or might be prescribing more pain medications after surgery would not necessarily be a surprise. Thus, as with every aspect of criminal prosecution, prosecutors ought to be mindful of the nuances and details.

We have no doubt that our former colleagues at Justice will continue their hard work in helping curb the opioid epidemic. And, for that, we commend them whole-heartedly. We have no doubt that the hard-working men and women in law enforcement will use all tools, including the proper use of data analytics, to solve one of our most vexing problems.

A. Lee Bentley III is the former U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida. Jason Mehta was an assistant U.S. attorney in the same office. Both are now in private practice at Bradley Arant Boult Cummings in Tampa.

Comments
Editorial: Handing out gift cards like candy at CareerSource

Editorial: Handing out gift cards like candy at CareerSource

It’s hard to pick the biggest outrage in the financial and ethical swamp that has swallowed Tampa Bay’s two primary job placement agencies, CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay. Is it the boiler room atmosphere where CareerSource recruite...
Updated: 17 minutes ago

Family separation crisis is not over

The family-separation crisis that President Donald Trump created is not over. The executive order Trump signed Wednesday purporting to end the routine tearing of children from their undocumented parents stands on uncertain legal ground. U.S. border a...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Editorial: State help needed to staff hotlines with veterans helping veterans

Editorial: State help needed to staff hotlines with veterans helping veterans

Veterans can help veterans deal with trauma resulting from military service in a way no one else can. That’s the theory behind a special hotline set up in the Tampa Bay area that proponents are hoping to take statewide.The expansion would cost some $...
Updated: 5 hours ago
Editorial: With Supreme Court ruling, Florida should collect sales tax from online retailers

Editorial: With Supreme Court ruling, Florida should collect sales tax from online retailers

It turns out the U.S. Supreme Court has a better grasp of the economic realities of the 21st century than Congress or the Florida Legislature. The court ruled Thursday that states can require online retailers to collect sales taxes even if the retail...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Editorial: Congress should ban splitting kids, parents

Editorial: Congress should ban splitting kids, parents

The shocking scenes of immigrant children crying after being taken from their parents at the border exposed a new level of cruelty by the Trump administration, and though the president reversed course Wednesday, Congress needs to end the shameful pra...
Published: 06/21/18
Sessions kickstarts action on marijuana

Sessions kickstarts action on marijuana

Good job, Jeff Sessions! It seems the attorney general’s misguided attempts to revive the unpopular and unjust federal war on marijuana may be having the exact opposite effect — prompting a new bipartisan effort in Congress to allow states to legaliz...
Published: 06/18/18
Updated: 06/21/18
Editorial: A court victory for protecting Florida’s environment

Editorial: A court victory for protecting Florida’s environment

A Tallahassee judge has affirmed the overwhelming intent of Florida voters by ruling that state lawmakers have failed to comply with a constitutional amendment that is supposed to provide a specific pot of money to buy and preserve endangered lands. ...
Published: 06/18/18
Updated: 06/20/18
Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Innocent children should not be used as political pawns. That is exactly what the Trump administration is doing by cruelly prying young children away from their parents as these desperate families cross the Mexican border in search of a safer, better...
Published: 06/17/18
Updated: 06/19/18

Editorial: ATF should get tougher on gun dealers who violate the law

Gun dealers who break the law by turning a blind eye to federal licensing rules are as dangerous to society as people who have no right to a possess a firearm in the first place. Yet a recent report shows that the federal agency responsible for polic...
Published: 06/17/18
Updated: 06/18/18
Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

The new grass-roots effort to put a transportation package before Hillsborough County voters in November faces a tough slog. Voters rejected a similar effort in 2010, and another in 2016 by elected officials never made it from the gate. But the lates...
Published: 06/15/18