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The Sammies Series: Q&A with Microsoft and the Appalachian Regional Prescription Opioid Strike Force team

By Lia Collen | December 1, 2020

Last year, a team of federal employees investigated and arrested more than 70 health care professionals in six states for the unlawful distribution of 40 million medically unnecessary pain pills. The federal employees who led this multi-agency effort to form the Opioid Strike Force team were Thomas Prevoznik, deputy assistant administrator at the Drug Enforcement Administration; Joseph Beemsterboer, senior deputy chief of the criminal fraud section at the Justice Department; and Gary Cantrell, deputy inspector general for investigations at the Department of Health and Human Services.

These exceptional public servants were 2020 Service to America Medals finalists in the Safety, Security and International Affairs category. Toni Townes-Whitley, Microsoft’s president of U.S. Regulated Industries, spoke with Cantrell and Prevoznik about their efforts to address the country’s deadly opioid epidemic.

Townes-Whitley: How did this multi-agency Opioid Strike Force team come together?

Cantrell: Medicare and Medicaid fraud fall under the HHS Office of the Inspector General, so we’ve been getting into the prescription drug space and devoted a lot of resources to fighting the opioid epidemic. It was only natural that we joined forces with the DEA and the DOJ’s criminal division. We all recognized our overlapping interests in fighting the opioid epidemic, and the expertise and data that each of us brought to the table. Tom, Joe and I came in with an eagerness to work together, and that resulted in a lasting partnership.

Townes-Whitley: You’ve put a lot of time and passion into fighting the opioid epidemic. What encouraged you and what concerned you in this work?

Prevoznik: The epidemic’s toll on rural America has been devastating, and some of the health care providers wreaked havoc in their communities. When we removed these providers from practice, we needed to fill the void. We focused time and energy on building other partnerships, including with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health agencies, to make sure there was something in place for these thousands of patients. In the end, our work affected more than 28,000 patients.

We do this work because we see the need to protect the public. As a government employee, that’s what I signed up for. I truly believe in our mission, and I know the rest of the team does too.

Townes-Whitley: Did the Opioid Strike Force team learn any lessons through your work that will help us address this crisis?

Cantrell: We learned that state and federal systems are not set up for us to engage directly with people who are at risk of being addicted to, or overdosing from, prescription opioids. There’s a clear line between what we can do and what we want to do, because the government has boundaries around addiction and treatment, which are very private issues.

There’s also a lot of variability between states and their capacity to assist enforcement actions. Every state we coordinated with was eager to work with us, but the reality is that not every state has the same resources to deploy. We have more to learn, but creating partnerships with public health officials is critical to our ongoing efforts.

Townes-Whitley: How has the pandemic impacted patient care and your ability to combat illegal opioid activity?

Prevoznik: Every day, we’re assessing the impact of COVID-19. We’re working with HHS and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to look at regulations, treatment and social distancing. We’re trying to balance the need to protect health care providers with the need for substance abuse patients to interact with health care professionals. But we unfortunately have seen opioid overdoses increasing.

Cantrell: We’re hearing that the pandemic is creating challenges for patients to get access to quality treatment. In recent years, we’ve tracked the number of Medicare patients who are at risk of overdose because of the number of opioids they’re prescribed. In 2019, our enforcement efforts, the national attention on the epidemic, and the availability of other treatments helped bring down the number of at-risk patients from 500,000 to 267,000. But COVID-19 is creating new concerns.

Townes-Whitley: At Microsoft, we’re trying to understand the impact of opioid use, and how we can help government control the epidemic. How can corporate America, and our nation as a whole, support your work?

Prevoznik: There’s a role that corporate America and society can play. We need to reduce the stigma associated with substance abuse. These are human beings who are hurting and need treatment. Health care providers need to treat patients correctly and legitimately to really make a difference, and we as a nation need to come to a better understanding that substance abuse is a disease.

Townes-Whitley: You both represent the best of public service. What would you say to motivate the next generation to explore a career in government?

Cantrell: If you’re interested in technology, the government is one of the leaders in this space. There are opportunities to innovate and transition from the old technology that many agencies use. For HHS, it’s critical that we continue to invest in technologies, such as electronic health records and telemedicine. The mission and the impact we can have is what drives me and our entire organization.

Prevoznik: For those who work in the federal government, what we do every day has meaning. We impact not just our colleagues, but also the public. I took an oath to protect the public, and I want to be part of the solution to end the opioid epidemic. Every day is different in our mission of serving the public. It’s impactful to tackle questions around how to handle the pandemic or what to do when natural disasters like hurricanes wipe out pharmacies. A job in the government will take you in directions you never imagined.

Read the team’s Service to America Medals profile for more on the work of the Opioid Strike Force team, and visit Microsoft’s website to learn about the organization’s work with different industries. For more on this year’s Sammies virtual awards program, read Inspiring Stories from this year’s Service to America Medals.

Join the conversation with #Sammies2020 and follow the Partnership on Twitter @publicservice.

This post is part of a series featuring in-depth interviews with our 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


Lia Collen