The executives largely shifted blame, despite their role in supplying the drugs at the center of the nationwide crisis. And they said updated technology allows them to act more quickly than years ago. | John Shinkle/POLITICO
Five of the nation’s top opioid distributors on Tuesday told a House panel that responsibility for the opioid crisis rests with bad actors at pharmacies and doctors who wrote too many prescriptions, not with their companies.
Executives from four of the five distributors denied contributing to widespread painkiller abuse when questioned by Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Chairman Gregg Harper (R-Miss.). Joseph Mastandrea, chairman of Ohio drug wholesaler Miami-Luken, answered “yes” and blamed prior management.
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Another executive, Cardinal Health Executive Chairman George Barrett, apologized for not catching bad actors faster.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish we had moved faster and asked a different set of questions. I am deeply sorry we did not,” Barrett said.
Several of the other executives expressed contrition for not catching large requests for opioids more quickly.
The executives were summoned to address their roles in a public health crisis that kills 115 Americans per day, according to some estimates. Tuesday’s hearing — which has drawn comparisons to historic congressional hearings with tobacco company executives in 1994 — took up alleged pill dumping, or loading towns with excessive amounts of opioids, particularly in West Virginia.
The hearing is expected to be the most high-profile part of a congressional effort to address the crisis. Energy and Commerce is expected to mark up two dozen opioid-related bills Wednesday, and an additional spate of measures the following week, with a goal of having legislation ready for the House floor by Memorial Day.
Lawmakers on the panel showed bipartisan interest in trying to force the executives to take responsibility and chastised several of them for not being upfront with details.
Energy and Commerce Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) recounted how one West Virginia town of about 400 people received 9 million opioid pills in two years and how a single pharmacy in a town of 1,800 people got 17 million opioid pills in a decade.
Since the 1970s, drug distributors have been responsible for flagging suspicious orders and monitoring sales — something Walden suggested has not been done.
“It is difficult to not be troubled by the compliance efforts of our nation’s distributors,” Walden said.
The executives largely shifted blame, despite their role in supplying the drugs at the center of the nationwide crisis. And they said updated technology allows them to act more quickly than years ago.
“There is no question that a key driver of the crisis, as the CDC has said, is the overprescribing of opioids by doctors across the country. At the same time there were certainly pharmacies in West Virginia that were bad actors that McKesson itself terminated,” said McKesson Corp. Chairman and CEO John Hammergren. “In hindsight, we would have liked us to have seen us move much more quickly to address the issues with these pharmacies.”
AmerisourceBergen Chairman Steven Collis said the company isn’t equipped to override the decision of health professionals who want to prescribe opioids for legitimate health reasons.
“Our place in the supply chain provides AmerisourceBergen Drug Corporation with neither the information nor the expertise to override clinical decisions by trained doctors and pharmacists or to determine the appropriate supply of medications,” Collis said in written testimony to lawmakers.
Three of the companies that testified — McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen — account for about 85 percent of the opioid drug supply, Walden said.
“They are the chokepoints in the U.S. prescription drug supply chain,” Walden said. Addressing the executives, he said, “you are at the frontlines of the defense of this crisis.”