BOSTON >> State and federal law enforcement agencies pledged Wednesday to band together to crack down on doctors and other health care providers who illegally prescribe or dispense opioid painkillers.
Attorney General Maura Healey said the overprescribing of opioids is contributing to the spike in overdoses and deaths in Massachusetts.
On Wednesday, Healey announced her office has formed a task force with the FBI, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and other state agencies to share information and collaborate on investigations.
Healey said the number of opioid prescriptions in Massachusetts has increased by 140 percent since the mid-1990s, with 4.6 million prescriptions given out in 2015.
Deaths from opioid-related overdoses more than doubled in Massachusetts between 2011 and 2014, with more than 1,250 people believed to have died from overdoses in 2014.
"We all know we are in the midst of a terrible crisis," Healey, a Democrat, said at an afternoon news conference in her office. "This is about protecting public safety, protecting public health."
Healey said that while the majority of doctors and other health care professionals are acting responsibly, a small number are responsible for illegal overprescribing.
Healey pointed to the case of a Ludlow doctor her office charged last year with illegally prescribing opioids to patients for no legitimate medical purpose, some of whom had documented substance abuse issues. Dr. Fernando Jayma, 73, has denied the charges.
Officials said there are some red flags to alert them to potential criminal behavior, including doctors who are prescribing outside their specialty or doctors who routine prescribing to patients who must travel a long way to get to their office.
Investigators can also look to see if individuals who have died from overdoses received prescriptions from the same doctor.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John McNeil acknowledged that successfully proving in court that a doctor has crossed a line from simply prescribing a large number of pills into criminal behavior can be tough.
But he said even if a criminal prosecution is unsuccessful, doctors can still end up losing their licenses.
Healey's actions come as the Democrat-controlled state Legislature is working to get an opioid abuse bill to Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who has proposed his own legislation.
The Massachusetts House last week approved a bill that would limit initial opiate painkiller prescriptions to a seven-day supply.
Dr. Dennis Dimitri, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said the physicians' group supports the effort to eliminate inappropriate prescribing and opioid abuse. He said the group has issued opioid prescribing guidelines and made educational courses available on its website. He said those efforts have improved safe prescribing habits.
"We know that the vast majority of physicians prescribe carefully and ethically," Dimitri said in statement Wednesday. "At the same time we acknowledge that a very small number of physicians may be involved in inappropriate prescribing."