The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new numbers on the opioid crisis, saying the number of overdose visits to hospital emergency rooms soared last year, the latest evidence the nation's drug crisis is getting worse.
WASHINGTON – A top executive with a major pharmaceutical distributor apologized Tuesday for his company’s failure to stop sending painkillers to two West Virginia pharmacies but later said he did not believe his firm’s actions contributed to the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Cardinal Health’s Executive Chairman George Barrett said the distributor agrees that too many prescription pills have been shipped across the country, and he lamented that decisions made by his company to keep shipping pills to two pharmacies that have been the focus of a congressional investigation.
“Those decisions allowed the two pharmacies to continue to receive certain volumes of hydrocodone and oxycodone from Cardinal Health for longer than I think they should have, based on what I have since learned about the circumstances surrounding those pharmacies,” Barrett told a House subcommittee.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish we had moved faster and asked a different set of questions,” Barrett said. “I am deeply sorry we did not.”
But a few minutes later, when the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., asked Barrett and executives from four other distributors whether they believed the actions by them or their companies contributed to the opioids crisis, Barrett deflected responsibility.
“No, sir, I do not believe we contributed to the opioid crisis,” he said.
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Only one of the five executives — Miami-Luken Chairman Joseph R. Mastandrea — answered yes.
Executives from the five distributors — Cardinal Health, Miami-Luken, the McKesson Corp., AmerisourceBergen Corp. and H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co. — faced tough questions for nearly three hours from members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
The panel is investigating how millions of prescriptions flooded into West Virginia, many of them in small rural communities, feeding the opioid epidemic in one of the hardest-hit states in the nation.
Congressional investigators found that, between 2007 and 2012, distributors sent more than 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone into West Virginia, which roughly equals 433 pills for every man, woman and child in the state, congressional investigators say. During that time, 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two drugs.
Investigators discovered that a single pharmacy in Mount Gay-Shamrock, population 1,779, received more than 16.5 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills between 2006 and 2016. In nearby Williamson, population 2,900, distributors sent almost 21 million opioids to two pharmacies during that same period.
“How many other communities across the country have received millions more opioids than their communities could reasonably sustain?” Harper asked.
Democrats and Republicans on the committee faulted the distributors for missing what they said were signs that too many opioids were going into the state.
But the drug distributors stressed that they do not manufacture or prescribe the drugs and that their role was limited to filling orders placed by pharmacies. They insisted they had stopped suspicious orders for the shipment of hundreds of millions of doses of controlled substances and have terminated shipments to pharmacies they deemed problematic.
The distribution executives also said their companies have stepped up their anti-diversion programs to keep prescription medicines from ending up in the wrong hands. But they called on the Drug Enforcement Administration to update its regulations to standardize suspicious order monitoring programs among the 900 distributors regulated by the agency.
“We want to be part of the solution to the opioid crisis, which we believe can be conquered while keeping opioids available for patients who legitimately need them,” said Steven Collis, chairman and chief executive officer of AmerisourceBergen.
But, “in order to conquer this problem, it is imperative that the DEA come to the table and work with all stakeholders in the supply chain in a more cooperative and collaborative manner,” Collis said.
Rep. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said it is the distributors’ responsibility to know their customers, monitor orders, refuse suspicious orders and report those orders to the DEA.
“Our investigation has shown this did not always happen,” he said.
Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., chided the distributors for not owning up to their part in the opioid epidemic.
“The fury inside of me right now is bubbling over with how we are going to address this problem,” he said. “And for several of you to say you had no role whatsoever in this, I find particularly offensive, when we’ve had over 900 people a year dying in West Virginia because of lack of attention” on the part of the distributors.
“Deflecting responsibility, saying I just had to fill the order — you had a role,” he said. “You had a role.”
Both the House and the Senate are considering a package of bills to tackle the growing opioid crisis. Action is expected sometime this summer.