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Ken Hall: While opioids kill West Virginians, there's too much drug money in politics (Gazette)

Our country’s opioid epidemic is killing West Virginians and tearing families apart. Our small state has suffered the highest overdose death toll in the nation and is shouldering the biggest economic burden. A recent study by the American Enterprise Institute estimates that the opioid epidemic is costing West Virginia $8.8 billion a year, with 12 percent of the state’s gross domestic product dedicated to costs related to the epidemic.

So why would West Virginia’s attorney general and U.S. Senate candidate, Patrick Morrisey, settle for pennies on the dollar with Cardinal Health, the drug distributor that pumped more than 241 million prescription painkillers over a six-year period into our state of 1.8 million people?

Morrisey’s ties to big pharma have been well documented. We have known that Morrisey himself lobbied for the pharmaceutical industry before becoming attorney general. But recent news confirming that his wife was lobbying federal lawmakers on opioid-related issues for Cardinal Health — the state’s leading supplier of prescription painkillers — during his first three years in office should be a wake-up call for voters in our state.

When state regulators originally became aware of the opioid epidemic, they began to hold the industry accountable. Former Attorney General Darrell McGraw brought lawsuits against 14 drug distribution companies for their role in flooding our state with excessive numbers of painkillers.

Unfortunately, the enforcement actions stopped abruptly when Patrick Morrisey was elected attorney general in 2013. Morrisey, who has deep ties to the industry, stopped holding it accountable to the people of West Virginia. He initially recused himself from the cases that McGraw brought because of his industry ties, but then, he had the audacity to meet with the companies the state was suing after he “recused” himself.

Morrisey’s office reluctantly filed suit against one of the big three distributors, McKesson, only after being called out by heads of two state agencies in September and again by Delegate Don Perdue, on Nov, 1, 2015. His office then settled with the distributor Miami-Luken, in February 2016, and with Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and H.D. Smith in January 2017.

Since those settlements, lawsuits by various West Virginia counties and investigations by federal congressional committees have revealed that the number of opioids these distributors poured into our towns is much higher than we thought.

In a commentary from November 2017, I called on all candidates, including Morrisey, to return all campaign contributions and not accept any new ones from the industry. I’m willing to bet that didn’t and hasn’t happened.

Now he wants to be our senator. A CBS 60 Minutes/Washington Post report in October 2017 revealed what can happen when elected leaders are too close to the pharmaceutical industry. Such close ties between members of Congress and the industry stifled the Drug Enforcement Administration and allowed companies to pump more and more deadly drugs into our communities.

We don’t need to send someone to the U.S. Senate who has already shown that his loyalty is to the drug companies, not his own constituents.

Morrisey should recuse himself from all opioid litigation because of his conflicts. I also call on Gov. Jim Justice to appoint an independent legal team to review the settlements and oversee all the ongoing litigation against the drug manufacturers and distributors.

Ken Hall is general secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Funerals for Friday, July 19, 2019

Cawley Jr., George - 3 p.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Cunningham, Corinna - 11 a.m., Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mt. Lookout.

Evenson, Warren - 2 p.m., Donel C. Kinnard State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

Lawrence, Jerry - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.

Ratliff, Sarah - 2 p.m., Odd Fellow Cemetery, Oak Hill.

Williams, Scott - 11 a.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.