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Congress probes WV opioid shipments


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A congressional committee has started an investigation into prescription painkiller shipments to West Virginia.

The probe targets the nation’s three largest wholesale drug distributors — McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. 

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee also is looking into whether the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration shirked its responsibility to curtail the flow of highly addictive pain pills into West Virginia.

In letters sent Monday, the committee directed the companies and the DEA to turn over records that detail pain pill shipments. The letters cite reports by the Charleston Gazette-Mail, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC about prescription opioid sales and lax enforcement.

“These reports shine a light on a problem that many people have wondered about privately and publicly — how are opioids flooding into some of our communities and pharmacies?” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., in a joint statement. “As we work to combat this epidemic head-on, it’s critical we get answers to why such extremely high numbers of these powerful and addictive painkillers were distributed in small communities in West Virginia and if similar situations are happening elsewhere.”

In December, the Gazette-Mail reported that drug wholesalers shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia pharmacies over six years. A small pharmacy in Kermit, a Southern West Virginia town with a population of 392, received nearly 9 million hydrocodone pills in just two years, DEA records show.

“If these reports are true, it would appear that the state of West Virginia may have received extraordinary amounts of opioids from distributors beyond what that population could safely use,” according to the commitee’s letter signed by Walden, Pallone, and U.S. Reps. David McKinley, R-W.Va., Tim Murphy, R-Pa., and Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

The committee members added that the reported “possible oversupply” of powerful painkillers suggests “such practices may have exacerbated the opioid problem in the state” as many addicts have switched from prescription pain pills to street drugs like heroin and fentanyl.

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation — and the deaths are rising. At last count, 864 people fatally overdosed on drugs in 2016 — a record number.

“The opioid crisis in West Virginia has led to numerous deaths and social challenges for its residents,” committee members said in the letter to distributors. “The state and federal government also have incurred costs of important social and addiction treatment services.”

The House committee gave the drug wholesalers until June 8 to disclose the number of hydrocodone and oxycodone pills sold in West Virginia from 2005 to 2016. (The Gazette-Mail reported shipments from 2007 to 2012). The drug firms also must provide a list of their distribution warehouses.

The committee asked the wholesalers to answer numerous questions about their drug sales monitoring systems, policies and procedures, and whether they referred questionable orders for prescription painkillers to the DEA, West Virginia Board of Pharmacy or other authorities.

In the letters, committee members inquired about whether drug distributors could more easily identify suspicious drug orders placed by pharmacies if the DEA could share sales data with the companies. The wholesalers have complained for years that the DEA leaves them in the dark.

AmerisourceBergen spokesman Gabe Weissman said the DEA already has the sales data sought by the House committee.

“We look forward to responding to the letter from the committee and to continuing our work with regulators, enforcement agencies and other participants in the health care system to do our part in combating prescription drug abuse,” Weissmsan said.

“AmerisourceBergen already provides daily reports about the quantity, type and receiving pharmacy of every single order of controlled substances we distribute directly to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and we maintain robust systems to stop suspicious orders and prevent diversion of prescription drugs.”

A McKesson spokeswoman declined comment Monday. A Cardinal Health spokeswoman could not be reached.

The committee also is investigating the DEA’s decline in enforcement actions against drug wholesalers, following reports by The Washington Post.

“Considering that this reported decline in enforcement action occurred in the midst of the opioid epidemic — with the number of opioid prescriptions in the U.S. increasing from 112 million in 1992 to 249 million in 2015 — it is imperative that the committee gather the facts about DEA’s actions,” House lawmakers wrote.

The committee directed the DEA to turn over all documents related to blocked or delayed enforcement against prescription drug distributors during the past six years.

A DEA spokeswoman would not comment on the investigation Monday.

In January, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health agreed to pay the state a combined $36 million to settle a lawsuit filed by then-Attorney General Darrell McGraw in 2012. The lawsuits alleged that the companies helped fuel West Virginia’s drug problem by shipping an excessive number of pain pills to the state.

A similar lawsuit filed against McKesson by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in January 2016 remains pending in Boone Circuit Court.

About a dozen West Virginia towns, cities and counties have filed lawsuits against the drug wholesalers — or announced their intentions to do so — since December.

See more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail

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