Federal officials unveiled a new task force for Northern New England on Wednesday aimed at doctors, nurses, pharmacists and others in the health care world that are encouraging the misuse and abuse of prescription drugs.
U.S. Attorney Nikolas "Kolo" Kerest of Vermont, along with his peers from Maine and New Hampshire, helped outlined the creation of the New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force during a news conference in Concord, N.H.
The U.S. Department of Justice and law enforcement partners plan to expand their work to identify, investigate and prosecute individuals in health care fraud schemes involving the illegal distribution of prescription opioids and other prescribed controlled substances in New England.
Kerest said the strike force will raise the level of the traditional cooperation among offices and law enforcement resources by having prosecutors out of Washington, D.C., also available with their expertise.
He said the new strike force will be based out of New Hampshire, but Assistant U.S. Attorney John Boscia of Shelburne, who is the deputy chief of the criminal division in Vermont, will serve as the local liaison.
"There are going to be team of prosecutors to focus on these three states," said Kerest, who became the top federal prosecutor in Vermont in December.
Kerest stressed federal officials believe the health care profession is filled with honest, hard-working individuals. He said the task force is designed to root out the few bad apples that care about "profits over the patient's well-being."
He said the tiny percentage who betray a trust will be targeted.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite Jr. of the DOJ's Criminal Division in Washington was on hand to help make the joint announcement.
“In the last year, more than 75,000 people in the United States lost their lives due to overdose. Since 2018, some of the greatest spikes in the drug overdose death rate have occurred in New England," Polite said.
Polite was unable to immediately provide a price tag for the strike force.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the FBI and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Inspector General also will be among those involved in the joint operation.
The first strike force has seen huge success. The Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force, since its creation in 2018, has charged 111 defendants, collectively responsible for issuing prescriptions for over 115 million controlled substance pills. To date, more than 60 of these defendants have been convicted in conjunction with the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices throughout Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Tennessee and West Virginia.
U.S. Attorney Jane E. Young for New Hampshire and U.S. Attorney Darcie N. McElwee for Maine will be working with Kerest's office on the plan.
Also part of the announcement were Assistant Administrator Kristi N. O’Malley of the DEA Diversion Control Division, Acting Deputy Assistant Director Aaron Tapp of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division, and Deputy Inspector General for Investigations Christian J. Schrank of the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General.