U.S. imposes sanctions on Chinese national over fentanyl trafficking

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Treasury Department on Tuesday imposed sanctions on a Chinese national, accusing him of trafficking fentanyl to the United States.

It said in a statement that Taotao Zhang, a chemist and chemical supplier, had shipped illicit synthetic opioids to the United States. The Treasury also blacklisted Hong Kong-based Allyrise Technology Group Co, Limited, of which Zhang is director, accusing it of being a front company for his financial transactions.

Fentanyl is a cheap opioid painkiller 50 times more potent than heroin that has played a major role in an opioid crisis in the United States, where more than 28,000 synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths were recorded in 2017.

U.S. officials say China is the main source of illicit fentanyl. President Donald Trump has accused Chinese President Xi Jinping of failing to meet promises to help stop the flow of the drug into the United States, a charge Beijing rejects.

“The United States remains committed to protecting vulnerable Americans by targeting individuals peddling this deadly drug,” Treasury Deputy Secretary Justin Muzinich said.

Tuesday’s action freezes any U.S. assets of Zhang and the Hong Kong-based company and generally bars Americans from dealing with them.

The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said it coordinated the move with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Grant McCool)

Americans report stronger finances in Trump’s first year: Federal Reserve

FILE PHOTO: The Federal Reserve headquarters in Washington, U.S., September 16, 2015. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The share of Americans who report they are doing “at least okay” financially rose in President Donald Trump’s first year in office, according to Federal Reserve data published on Tuesday.

The data was in line with other readings detailing America’s long recovery from the 2007-09 recession, including years of mostly steady job growth and a more recent uptick in wages.

The U.S. central bank said 74 percent of U.S. adults said their finances were at least okay in 2017, four percentage points higher than in 2016. Improvement was strongest in lower income households.

Still, about two in five adults faced a high likelihood of material hardship, such as an inability to afford sufficient food, medical treatment, housing or utilities, according to the Fed’s report, which was based on a survey of 12,246 people last year.

Also, about one in five people reported they personally knew someone who had been addicted to opioids. White adults were about twice as likely to be personally exposed to opioid addiction than blacks or Hispanics, regardless of education levels, the Fed said.

People exposed to opioid addiction also gave more dismal assessments of the local and national economies, although jobless rates in their areas were not higher than in areas where people were less exposed to opioids, the Fed said in the report.

“This analysis suggests the need to look beyond economic conditions to understand the roots of the current opioid epidemic,” according to the report.

The Fed has conducted the survey since 2013, although last year was the first time people were asked about opioid addiction.

Trump took office in January 2017 after a presidential election campaign that included promises to boost the economy and fight opioid addiction.

While the U.S. unemployment rate had been falling for several years before Trump assumed office, it has continued to fall and is currently at a 17-year low at 3.9 percent.

(Reporting by Jason Lange; Editing by Susan Thomas)

Trump declares opioids a U.S. public health emergency

Trump declares opioids a U.S. public health emergency

By Yasmeen Abutaleb and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency on Thursday, stopping short of a national emergency declaration he promised months ago that would have freed up more federal money.

Responding to a growing problem wreaking havoc in rural areas, Trump’s declaration will redirect federal resources and loosen regulations to combat opioid abuse, senior administration officials said on a conference call with reporters.

But it does not mean there will be more money to combat the crisis. Some critics, including Democratic lawmakers, said the declaration was meaningless without additional funding.

“This epidemic is a national health emergency,” Trump said at the White House. “Nobody has seen anything like what’s going on now. As Americans, we cannot allow this to continue.”

The announcement disappointed some advocates and experts in the addiction fight, who said it was inadequate to fight a scourge that played a role in more than 33,000 deaths in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The death rate has kept rising, estimates show.

Opioids, primarily prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, are fueling the drug overdoses. More than 100 Americans die daily from related overdoses, according to the CDC.

A White House commission on the drug crisis had urged Trump to declare a national emergency. On Wednesday, the president told Fox Business Network he would do so.

Officials told reporters on the conference call that Federal Emergency Management Agency funds that would have been released under a national emergency are already exhausted from recent storms that struck Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida.

The administration would have to work with Congress to help provide additional funding to address drug abuse, they added.

Under Thursday’s declaration, treatment would be made more accessible for abusers of prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl, while ensuring fewer delays in staffing the Department of Health and Human Services to help states grapple with the crisis.

‘BAD ACTORS’

Trump said he would discuss stopping the flow of fentanyl, a drug 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Asia next month.

In his remarks, Trump said the U.S. Postal Service and Department of Homeland Security were “strengthening the inspection of packages coming into our country to hold back the flood of cheap and deadly fentanyl, a synthetic opioid manufactured in China.”

He added he would consider bringing lawsuits against “bad actors” in the epidemic. Several states have sued opioid manufacturers for deceptive marketing. Congress is investigating the business practices of manufacturers.

The president also said the government should focus on teaching young people not to take drugs. “There is nothing desirable about drugs. They’re bad,” he said.

Thursday’s declaration also allows the Department of Labor to issue grants to help dislocated workers affected by the crisis. HIV/AIDS health funding would also be prioritized for those who need substance abuse treatment, officials said.

As a candidate, Trump promised to address the crisis, including by building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border to stop the flow of illicit drugs, which he touched on in his speech.

Additional actions under the move would be announced in coming weeks by various agencies, officials said.

(Additional reporting by James Oliphant, Susan Heavey and Jason Lange; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney)

Rhode Island doctor pleads guilty to opioid kickback scheme related to Insys

FILE PHOTO: A box of the Fentanyl-based drug Subsys, made by Insys Therapeutics Inc, is seen in an undated photograph provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Alabama. U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Alabama/Handout via REUTERS

By Nate Raymond

BOSTON (Reuters) – A Rhode Island doctor pleaded guilty on Wednesday to charges he participated in a scheme to obtain kickbacks in exchange for writing prescriptions for an addictive fentanyl-based cancer pain drug produced by Insys Therapeutics Inc.

The plea by Jerrold Rosenberg came amid ongoing investigations of Insys related to Subsys, an under-the-tongue spray that contains fentanyl, a synthetic opioid.

Rosenberg, 63, pleaded guilty in federal court in Providence, Rhode Island, to charges that he committed healthcare fraud and conspired to receive kickbacks to prescribe Subsys.

Prosecutors said that from 2012 to 2015, Rosenberg schemed to receive $188,000 in kickbacks in the form of speaker fees from Insys, which were a major factor in his decision to prescribe Subsys to patients.

He also fraudulently indicated that his patients suffered from cancer pain when they did not in order to secure insurance approvals for Subsys, prosecutors said.

Under a plea agreement, Rosenberg agreed to pay $754,736 in restitution to healthcare benefit programs. He faces a maximum prison sentence of 15 years and is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 16.

Rosenberg’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Chandler, Arizona-based Insys in a statement said it has “taken necessary and appropriate steps to prevent past mistakes from happening in the future.”

The investigations into Insys have come during a national epidemic of opioid abuse. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were involved in more than 33,000 deaths in 2015. The death rate has continued to rise, according to estimates.

In December, federal prosecutors in Boston charged six former Insys executives and managers, including ex-Chief Executive Michael Babich, with engaging in a scheme to bribe doctors to prescribe Subsys and defraud insurers.

All six have pleaded not guilty. Federal charges have also been filed in several other states against other ex-Insys employees and medical practitioners who prescribed Subsys.

Insys has been in settlement talks with the U.S. Justice Department. It said on Wednesday it is working “with relevant authorities to resolve issues related to the misdeeds of former employees.”

Insys also faces lawsuits by attorneys general in Arizona and New Jersey. It previously paid $9.45 million to resolve investigations by attorneys general in Oregon, New Hampshire, Illinois and Massachusetts.

The case is U.S. v. Rosenberg, U.S. District Court, District of Rhode Island, No. 17-cr-00009.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Matthew Lewis)