East Tennessee is receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Justice for a pilot program focused on fighting opioid-related health care fraud.
DOJ representatives were in Knoxville Tuesday to announce details of the program.
The Eastern District of Tennessee was selected alongside 11 other districts out of 94 total across the country to participate in the DOJ's Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit.
The 12 districts are areas with "a significant prescription opioid problem," according to the DOJ.
"Sadly, statistics show that Tennessee is one of the most highly opioid-addicted states in the country. While our current Assistant U.S. Attorneys have already made tremendous efforts toward combatting opioid-related healthcare fraud in the district, the U.s. Attorney's Office is pleased to receive these additional resources, including funding for an aggressive prosecutor, to enhance these endeavors," said U.S. Attorney Nancy Stallard Harr.
Officials said the effort includes investigating pill mills, pharmacies and doctors who may be prescribing opioids illegally.
They hope this will help combat the devastating opioid crisis happening in East Tennessee.
"We are looking for those that have let profit get in the way of their noble calling," Harr said.
The district will receive funding for an assistant U.S. Attorney for a three-year term who will be focusing entirely on investigating and prosecuting these cases.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David P. Lewen Jr. has been chosen to fill the position in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of Tennessee. Lewen has been a federal prosecutor in East Tennessee for nearly 10 years.
"The rate of opioid related deaths, opioid related crime is high unfortunately so the goal is to preserve life, that’s the first goal and I think if we are doing that then we are also going to bring down the opioid related abuse problems that sort of orbit this epidemic," Lewen said.
Lewen said the the number of suspected overdose deaths for Knox County alone is staggering; more than 300 deaths are expected by the end of 2017.
"You cannot replace life and the unfortunate thing about this is that this nature of drug dealing is really no different than any other kind of drug dealing. It's about money so these lives are lost in exchange for money and we want to stop that," he said.
The 12 districts included in the program include:
1.Middle District of Florida
2.Eastern District of Michigan
3.Northern District of Alabama
4.Eastern District of Tennessee
5.District of Nevada
6.Eastern District of Kentucky
7.District of Maryland
8.Western District of Pennsylvania
9.Southern District of Ohio
10.Eastern District of California
11.Middle District of North Carolina
12.Southern District of West Virginia