The U.S. Justice Department is launching an effort to combat health care providers who illegally prescribe or distribute opioids across Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.
The newly created New England Prescription Opioid Strike Force, or NEPO, comes as overdoses in the region are on the rise, including in New Hampshire, where prosecutors say there has been a 35% increase in reported overdoses in Manchester and Nashua compared to last year.
“Various federal resources have focused on drug dealers who pollute our communities,” said Jane Young, U.S. Attorney for New Hampshire, during a press conference Wednesday at the federal courthouse in Concord. “But now with the NEPO strike force, we have an additional tool. A tool that will also look at the opioid crisis but from another perspective: the illegal prescribers.”
NEPO will operate out of Young’s office, and will consist of four dedicated prosecutors targeting doctors, dentists and pharmacists who recklessly write or fill prescriptions.
“We are focused on those who seek to profit from patient addiction, and are contributing to the plague of opioid abuse and overdose, too often with deadly results,” said U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite.
Polite said NEPO is based on a similar program covering the Appalachian region where prosecutors have successfully arrested rogue prescribers. He added the new law enforcement resources are not aimed at well-intentioned doctors who may prescribe opioids to patients with chronic pain or other medical conditions.
Darcie McElwee, the U.S. Attorney from Maine, as well as Nikolas Kerest, her counterpart from Vermont, also spoke at the press conference about the need for greater attention to the small portion of medical professionals who may be contributing to the epidemic.
“We are focused on those who seek to profit from patient addiction, and are contributing to the plague of opioid abuse and overdose, too often with deadly results.”U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Polite.
New England has been one of the regions most affected by the ongoing opioid crisis. In 2020, Maine had the ninth highest age-adjusted opioid death rate, Vermont posted the 16th highest rate, and New Hampshire the 17th, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. More than 75,000 people died nationally from overdoses in 2021.
The formation of NEPO comes as state and federal officials continue to investigate the theft of more than eight gallons of liquid fentanyl by a nurse at a hospital in Keene that led to the temporary suspension of top nursing and pharmaceutical staff at Cheshire Medical Center.
This story was originally published by New Hampshire Public Radio, a partner of the New England News Collaborative.