A nationwide law enforcement push aimed at the opioid crisis netted more than 400 arrests nationwide, top federal officials announced Thursday.
Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions said the record number of arrests, which included more than 120 people allegedly involved in prescribing opioids, are a preview of a more aggressive approach to combating the nation's spiraling epidemic of drug addiction.
"We believe there are a lot more cases that need to be brought," Sessions said, saying that some of the arrests started with computer work to identify "outliers" who were prescribing far more drugs than average.
Most of the arrests took place this week, including 77 people in Florida who were charged in various schemes — including recruiting addicts to move to Palm Beach in return for gift cards, casino trips and visits to strip clubs.
In the Los Angeles area, 17 people were charged in schemes, including the unnecessary prescribing of oxycodone.
Most of the cases involve false billings of Medicare for pills, equipment and services that were never provided. All told, the cases involve more than $1.3 billion in fraud, officials said.
Top officials said the government must find ways to reduce the demand for prescription narcotics. Four out of five new heroin addicts start with prescription pain pills, said Chuck Rosenberg, acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration
"We would like to see a reduction in the prescription of opioids," Sessions said. "I believe those numbers are way too high. The U.S. is by far the highest-prescribing opioid nation in the world; no other nation is close to it."
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said the Trump administration is committed to combating the crisis in other ways besides enforcement. Many people are not getting into recovery programs, he said.
In West Virginia, he said, "one firefighter revived the same young lady three times in one day. That's a system that is failing that individual."
Senators from West Virginia and other states with large numbers of addiction cases, however, have said they fear the healthcare legislation the administration backs would worsen those problems by cutting Medicaid, which covers care for large numbers of addicts.
9:25 a.m.: This article has been updated with staff reporting.