Federal lawmakers railed against the Drug Enforcement Administration Tuesday for failing to stop prescription drug distributors from shipping tens of millions of opioid painkillers to small-town pharmacies in Southern West Virginia.
Members of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee demanded to know why the DEA didn’t act while the drug companies supplied more than 20 million pain pills to pharmacies in towns with fewer than 3,000 people — places like Williamson and Mount Gay.
“We spend billions of dollars, countless hours by law enforcement, trying to stop illegal drugs from coming into this country, and here we are sending millions of doses of opioids to tiny little towns in West Virginia, all of this supposedly legally,” said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., at Tuesday’s congressional hearing. “This has to stop. This has to stop now.”
Drug distributors showered West Virginia with more than 780 million doses of hydrocodone and oxycodone — two powerful painkillers — over six years, data shows. The oversupply is widely blamed with starting the opioid crisis that’s causing record numbers of drug overdose deaths across the state.
The House panel’s investigation has targeted large drug wholesalers such as McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, and regional distributors Miami-Luken and H.D. Smith.
DEA Acting Administrator Robert Patterson told House members Tuesday that the agency was “reactive” in trying to track the shipments when the pill numbers surged in West Virginia between 2006 and 2011.
“Where we have fallen short in the past is by not proactively leveraging the data that is available to us,” Patterson said.
The DEA’s “manual process” took up to a year to count and confirm the painkiller numbers, he said.
“Everything was coming in on paper and tape,” Patterson said.
Subcommittee members chastised the DEA, saying the federal agency “screwed up” while people were dying. West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation.
“You were collecting data that you didn’t know how to use,” said Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-California. “You were not paying attention to your job.”
The DEA now has an automated drug-tracking database and works closely with states that operate prescription-monitoring programs. The DEA also unveiled a website in February that allows drug distributors to check whether any competitors are shipping to the same pharmacy. Some pharmacies order drugs from three or more distributors.
“We use the data in a very different way today,” Patterson said.
But lawmakers kept coming back to the massive shipments to small-town pharmacies in West Virginia. The congressional committee has been investigating the opioid crisis in West Virginia for more than a year.
The panel has previously sparred with the DEA, after the agency refused to turn over documents and submitted reports that were heavily redacted or blacked out.
On Tuesday, subcommittee members said the DEA should have flagged massive shipments to drugstores like Hurley Pharmacy and Tug Valley Pharmacy in Williamson, to Family Discount Pharmacy in Mount Gay, and to the now-shuttered Sav-Rite Pharmacy in Kermit.
“This is an abject failure,” said Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y. “It means no one is watching. Your agency needs to be turned upside down.”
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., noted that the DEA let Sav-Rite continue to operate, even though it had raided and stripped the license from the pharmacy’s satellite drugstore 2 miles away. The two pharmacies had the same owner.
“It doesn’t make any sense as to why the DEA didn’t shut down both pharmacies at the same time,” said Walden. “They were part of the same criminal scheme.”
Tuesday’s hearing was held by the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.
Earlier this month, West Virginia lawmakers passed a bill that aims to curb the number of pain pills that doctors prescribe. The legislation limits initial opioid prescriptions to a seven-day supply for short-term pain. Gov. Jim Justice is expected to sign the bill into law.