- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A top DEA official told Congress on Tuesday the agency would like to reform — rather than repeal — a 2016 law that made it harder for agents to suspend opioid shipments that could fall into the hands of corrupt doctors or criminal dealers.

Demetra Ashley, an acting assistant administrator, said the Drug Enforcement Administration has issued numerous suspension orders since the law’s passage, even though critics claim it made it virtually impossible for agents to intervene.

“It does not stop us from doing our job,” Ms. Ashley told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We find a way.”

Though it breezed through Congress, the 2016 law has become a flashpoint in the fight against an opioids epidemic that is killing tens of thousands of Americans each year.

Many lawmakers now say they didn’t realize the law raised the threshold for freezing shipments of narcotics, while allowing companies to take corrective action before facing punishment for doling out suspicious orders.

Sponsors of the bill say critics are overreacting. DEA figures provided by the committee say the agency issued five suspension orders against doctors or pharmacies in 2015, nine in 2016 and six so far in 2017.

“In fact, you’ll note that DEA issued more [suspension orders] in 2017, the year after the act passed, than it did in 2015, the year before it passed,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican who negotiated the final bill, said.

Ms. Ashley said the law does force the DEA to jump through extra hoops, because it raised the threshold needed to show cause for immediately suspending orders — by showing risk of death, bodily harm or abuse. Before its passage, the agency just had to point to the likelihood of diversion from proper channels.

Ms. Ashley said the DEA is open to discussing fixes with Congress, rather than axing the law, though she couldn’t say what changes the agency wants, exactly.

“We’re leaning more toward just amending it,” she said.

Senators said the DEA will need to be specific about what it needs.

“We can’t understand what you’re requesting if the agency doesn’t request it clearly and with language attached,” Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, said.

Earlier this year, a high-profile report by the Washington Post and CBS’s “60 Minutes” said industry-friendly lawmakers pushed the 2016 law over the concerns of whistleblowers within the DEA.

Forty-four attorneys general said the law is a “step backward” in the fight against the prescription painkiller abuse. Their pleas mirror entreaties from lawmakers in parts of the country that are reeling from the drug epidemic, including Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who face reelection in red states next year.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said he isn’t convinced the DEA — the main cop on the beat in fighting opioids diversion — is adequately employing the tools it has to stem the crisis.

He said nine suspension orders in 2016, for instance, doesn’t reflect the extent of the problem, as inordinate amounts of pills flood small towns across America.

“I don’t buy it. I don’t buy it at all,” he said.

Mr. Hatch bristled at claims his bill hamstrung efforts to stem drug abuse, particularly after it enjoyed widespread support at passage.

He said the bill was spawned from concerns that legitimate patients would be denied access to painkilling medicine.

“This was not a pharma [industry] bill,” Mr. Hatch said Tuesday. “Don’t tell me I did this bill because pharma donated however much money to me.”

Mr. Hatch also said the Justice Department was OK with the bill at the time, and that suspension orders dropped before Congress passed the 2016 law, so it’s “simply not correct” to blame the measure for the change.

The DEA hasn’t issued a suspension order against drug distributors or manufacturers, in particular, since 2012, or more than three years before the embattled law passed.

“Simply put, the notion that [suspension orders] against distributors and manufacturers were a critical and frequently used tool before the Ensuring Patient Access Act passed and that the Act caused DEA’s use of the tool to dry up is simply not correct,” Mr. Hatch said.

Suspension orders against doctors and pharmacies have dropped significantly since a high of 65 in 2011.

Mr. Hatch’s Democratic cosponsor, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, said they built a “backstop” in the law, to make sure there was no harm from it, by requiring the Health and Human Services Department to report on its effects.

However, he said the agency should have provided the report by now.

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