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Herald-Mail Media: Maryland attorney general takes on drugs, fraud, feds

08.28.2017
Updated) 
 

Despite changes Maryland has made in its justice system to deal with the opioid epidemic, more is needed to combat the problem, Attorney General Brian Frosh said Thursday.

In fact, in the past year, Maryland has "probably lost ground, as have other states" he said during a wide-ranging interview with Herald-Mail Media.

Earlier this month, Frosh's office indicted 11 people, including two doctors, for operating "pill mills." One doctor was selling prescriptions out of his car, and the other led a ring of conspirators to distribute drugs. That doctor also was charged with Medicaid fraud.

But while "we hope we can catch the worst of the worst," he said, "we can't arrest and incarcerate our way out."

While the state has adjusted its focus to more treatment for those addicted to heroin and opioids, "we need more treatment beds," Frosh said. "There's a lot more work to do."

Frosh has joined attorneys general in other states in taking the fight beyond prosecuting dealers. They're investigating drug manufacturers, as well.

Some manufacturers have claimed their opioids aren't addictive, he said. Patients have been prescribed more than they need, have become addicted and found they can't afford the opioids, and switched to heroin. The result has been an upsurge in overdoses and deaths. Frosh said nearly all states are now investigating, some in collaboration with other states and some on their own.

Price gouging

Plans to go after drug manufacturers for a different reason already have attracted a lawsuit from a generic-drugs trade group. Frosh sought legislation during this year's General Assembly to prevent price gouging by generic-drug manufacturers. The law becomes effective Oct. 1.

But the Association for Accessible Medicines filed a federal lawsuit last month seeking an injunction, claiming the law violates the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

While generic drugs have historically cost less, Frosh noted their prices have started to spike — some 300 have spiked 100 percent or more.

Affording medications is "a life-or-death issue for many people," he said.

Suing the feds

The General Assembly this year also gave the attorney general authority to sue the federal government without prior approval, and Frosh has put that legislation to immediate use, although "in every instance," he has sued along with attorneys general from other states, he said.

The first suit filed was against the first Muslim ban issued by President Donald Trump. Frosh said he filed the suit for several reasons.

The first was "the violation of the First Amendment, singling out a religion for discrimination," he said.

Additionally, he believed the ban was "bad for America. We've been the beneficiary of a brain drain (from other countries) since World War II. Fifty-two percent of the people who do biomedical research here are foreign-born. It's crazy for us to turn that off."

He noted that several high-tech companies started leasing space in Canada as a result of the ban.

"It's a self-destructive policy," Frosh said.

Frosh also joined other states to sue over Trump's threats to withhold cost-share reduction payments through the Affordable Care Act.

"There are 400,000 Marylanders who are dependent upon this insurance," he said.

Last month, he joined 18 other states suing U.S. Department of Education and Secretary Betsy DeVos for rescinding the Borrower Defense Rule, which was set to go into effect July 1. The provisions under the rule were finalized in the waning months of the Obama administration to protect students from predatory practices by for-profit schools that Frosh said "are great at marketing, but lousy at delivering education."

Frosh said students who completed the courses still lacked basic skills.

"They found their degrees were worthless," he said.

The Borrower Defense Rule was developed because many of the schools included an arbitration clause in their contracts with students that prevented students from suing. It forbids schools that accept federal aid from using forced arbitration to stop students from suing.

He's also participated in a series of environmental lawsuits as the Trump administration has moved to loosen regulations.

Frosh is a former state senator from Montgomery County. He was elected attorney general in 2014, and although he has not officially announced a re-election bid for next year, he said he likes the job.

What has surprised him in the role, he said, is that "there are so many people who are willing to take advantage of their neighbors. … Wherever you find folks who are vulnerable, there are people who are willing to take (what they have) away from them. It's just astonishing how many scams there are."

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