Justice Department charges 601 people in health care fraud, opioid crackdown

June 28 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department on Thursday announced charges against 601 people including doctors and nurses for taking part in healthcare fraud and opioid-related crimes that resulted in more than $2 billion in losses.

The arrests came as part of what the department said was the largest healthcare fraud takedown in U.S. history and included 162 doctors and other suspects charged for their roles in prescribing and distributing addictive opioid painkillers.

"In many cases, doctors, nurses, and pharmacists take advantage of people suffering from drug addiction in order to line their pockets," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement. "These are despicable crimes."

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The charges centered in part on schemes to bill the government healthcare programs Medicare, Medicaid and Tricare as well as private insurers for medically unnecessary prescription drugs and compounded medications.

The Justice Department also brought charges against medical professionals it said were contributing to the country's opioid epidemic by participating in the unlawful distribution of prescription painkillers.

In 2016, 42,000 people in the United States died from opioid overdoses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The perpetrators really are despicable and greedy people," U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a press conference. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Tom Brown)