1. Opinion

Column: The U.S. Attorney's office is fighting opioid abuse

For many years, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida has worked closely with its federal, state and local law enforcement partners to combat the illicit trafficking of opioids and the abuses associated with prescription opioids. These opioids include heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and prescription drugs such as oxycodone.

The current opioid epidemic affects not only our district, but the entire nation. Our continuing efforts to stem the tide include prosecuting criminally both international and street-level drug traffickers, as well as doctors, pharmacists, and others who are improperly prescribing and distributing pain medications.

In addition to criminal enforcement, we have aggressively pursued civil remedies as part of a comprehensive strategy. For example, after observing that the commercial activity of a small number of Fortune 500 companies involved in the prescription opioid trade was atypical, our Civil Division opened investigations to determine why. We soon learned that the extraordinary increases in the sales volume of opioids defied innocent explanation and, instead, reflected a casual attitude toward regulatory compliance and a culture of corporate regulatory neglect.

After gathering evidence, we confronted a national pharmacy chain (CVS) and two national distributors (Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp.) with our findings. These efforts culminated in three significant civil settlements during the past 21 months, resulting in the recovery of $216 million on behalf of the American taxpayer.

In May 2015, CVS paid $22 million in civil penalties for the conduct of two central Florida pharmacies that had filled opioid prescriptions prescribed outside normal medical practice. And, in December 2016, Cardinal Health paid $44 million in civil penalties to address its failure to report suspicious pharmacy orders of opioids in our district and in Maryland, as well as its failure to maintain sufficient controls for shipments of opioids in the Northeast.

This month, in partnership with 11 other U.S. attorneys' offices around the country, we announced the largest DEA civil penalties settlement to date against a distributor of prescription opioids. McKesson Corp. will pay $150 million to address its failure to report suspicious pharmacy orders of opioids at its distribution centers around the country. It also will forfeit its ability to distribute opioids for significant periods of time at four of these centers, including its Lakeland center. And, to prevent this problem from recurring, an independent monitor will scrutinize McKesson's suspicious order reporting protocol for five years.

Through the deterrent effect of significant monetary penalties, these settlements serve to encourage responsible regulatory behavior by companies placing prescription opioids in the stream of commerce. This is critical, as regulators must have reliable industry partners to ensure a safe supply of these powerful medications.

Our ongoing efforts in this area require vigilant and demanding oversight. We will continue to use all available criminal and civil remedies to ensure that companies, and responsible individuals within those companies, do their part to protect our communities from the tragic consequences caused by the illegal or improper distribution of opioids.

To be clear, our office was part of a team of dedicated law enforcement and Justice Department partners. Special thanks go to Adolphus P. Wright, special agent in charge for the DEA Miami Field Division, as well as to my fellow United States attorneys in other districts for their creativity and tenacity in this struggle.

While there are many who have contributed to these efforts: U.S. Attorneys John Walsh (and now Robert Troyer) in Colorado; William Ihlenfeld II (and now Betsy Steinfeld Jividen) in the Northern District of West Virginia; Rod Rosenstein in Maryland; and Preet Bharara in the Southern District of New York deserve particular praise. Their leadership and assistance were invaluable.

A. Lee Bentley III is the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Florida, and Randy Harwell is the district's Civil Chief. Both are based in Tampa, with offices in Orlando, Jacksonville, Fort Myers and Ocala.