Health and Science

House committee investigates drug distributors, DEA about painkiller pill flood in West Virginia

Key Points
  • AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson were sued in March by two West Virginia counties over their opioid distribution in the state
  • A single pharmacy in a town of just 392 people received 9 million painkiller pills in two years.
David Butow | Corbis | Getty Images

A congressional committee has opened an investigation of unusually heavy sales of painkillers in West Virginia, asking the nation's three major drug distribution companies about their sales and oversight practices in the opioid-devastated state.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee also is asking the federal Drug Enforcement Administration about claims that the agency has backed away from enforcement actions against companies that sell opioids.

The companies that received letters from the panel requesting information about hydrocodone and oxycodone sales in West Virginia were AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson.

The companies also were asked about any actions they have taken after reports about a flood of painkillers into the state.

The companies, which together distribute nearly 90 percent of all legal drugs in the United States, were sued in March in federal court by two West Virginia counties accusing them of creating a public health hazard by shipping large amounts of opioids to the state.

The House committee, in its letters, noted several newspaper articles last December that detailed what the panel called "questionably high quantities of drugs" supplied to West Virginia — which in 2015 had the nation's highest number of painkiller opioid overdoses.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that drug wholesalers over the course of six years "showered the state with 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills, while 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers."

"The unfettered shipments amount to 433 pain pills for every man, woman and child in West Virginia," the newspaper reported.

In one community, Kermit, population 392, a single pharmacy "received nearly 9 million hydrocodone pills over two years," the House committee noted.

The Washington Post reported that pill distributors "sent 66 million doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone into Kanawha County, population 190,000."

The Energy and Commerce Committee, in its letters to the companies, said, "If these reports are true, it would appear that the state of West Virginia may have received extraordinary amount of opioids from distributors beyond what that population could safely use."

In its letter to the DEA, the panel cited a Washington Post story that said that "while DEA pursued cases against some of the largest opioid distributors in the country, the agency's 'initiative was sharply curtailed in the face of pressure from the pharmaceutical industry beginning in 2013."

The letter to the DEA asks about the reported decline in enforcement actions, the agency's monitoring systems for unusual opioid orders and whether the agency is taking action in response to the news stories about the glut of pills in West Virginia.

In response to the letter, DEA spokesman Rusty Payne told CNBC that "DEA continues to combat the opioid crisis on a daily basis through enforcement, outreach, and robust demand reduction efforts."

"Specifically, DEA has increased the number of enforcement teams focused on criminal and civil investigations related to the opioid epidemic, and allocated additional resources to a successful drug take back program," Payne said in an email statement.

"We have improved outreach to - and education efforts with our communities and registrants through the DEA 360 Strategy. As recently as April 29, DEA's National Prescription Take Back Day brought in a record number of unused prescription drugs, collecting more than 900,000 pounds (450 tons) at close to 5,500 sites across the nation."

Gabriel Weissman, a spokesman for AmerisourceBergen, said, "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."

"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 and report suspicious orders and assist in preventing the possible diversion of prescription drugs," Weissman said.

"Our efforts to address diversion are balanced with the fact that we are a logistics company that is responsible for getting FDA-approved medicines from pharmaceutical companies who manufacture them to registered pharmacies who dispense them based on prescriptions written by licensed health care providers. We do not have access to patient information, have no ability to encourage prescribing or dispensing of pain medicines and are neither qualified nor authorized to interfere with clinical decisions between patients and their physicians."

"We understand the tragic magnitude of the opioid abuse problem in our country and we remain committed to working with stakeholders in health care and law enforcement to do what we can as a distributor to combat this problem," Weissman said.

Cardinal Health said, "We look forward to working together with the committee and responding to their letter."

"The people of Cardinal Health care deeply about the devastation opioid abuse has caused American families and communities and are committed to helping solve this complex national public health crisis," the company. "We are industry leaders in implementing state-of-the-art controls to combat the diversion of pain medications from legitimate uses, and have funded community education and prevention programs for a decade. We remain committed to doing our part."