- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Wholesale opioid distributors say they now are able to recognize and stop suspicious drug orders, telling Congress on Tuesday they’re in a position to stop the kinds of mistakes that led to millions of pills flooding West Virginia towns beginning a decade ago.

Yet all but one of the five companies hauled before the House Energy and Commerce Committee refused to take responsibility for fueling the U.S. addiction crisis that surged from 2007 to 2012, drawing a fierce rebuke from a West Virginia lawmaker who said his constituents are still dying.

“The fury inside me right now is bubbling over,”said Rep. David McKinley. “For several of you to say you had no role whatsoever in this, I find particularly offensive.”

The committee concluded that from 2007 to 2012, distributors shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia, equivalent to 433 pills for each person in the state.

During that time frame, 1,728 residents fatally overdosed on those drugs. West Virginia still has the worst overdose-death rate in the nation by far.

Executives from Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp. said that in hindsight, their companies should have realized that small-town pharmacies were getting far more pills than necessary and cut them off sooner. They said their data systems were outdated, or they didn’t ask the right questions.

They also said the opioid epidemic is a complex problem driven by many factors, however, shirking direct responsibility for the legions of Americans who got hooked on pain pills and turned to heroin laced with deadly fentanyl.

“No sir, I do not believe that we contributed to the opioid crisis,” said George S. Barrett, executive chairman of the Cardinal board.

McKesson Corp., AmeriSourceBergen Corporation and H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Co. also denied responsibility, though Dr. Joseph Mastandrea — chairman of Miami-Luken Inc. — offered a flat “yes” when asked if his company had fueled the crisis.

“You know what? Thank you for your honesty today, I appreciate it,” Rep. Diana DeGette, Colorado Democrat, told him.

As Congress mulls new opioids legislation, lawmakers are increasingly looking to hold opioid companies accountable for their roles in sparking the crisis, which is killing more Americans per year than the entire Vietnam War did.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, wants to hold executive criminally liable or fine them and put the money in a fund to combat the crisis, though Tuesday’s hearing amounted to a scolding and plea for vigilance moving forward.

Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Walden said distributors serve as critical middlemen between manufacturers and pharmacies, so they need to keep their own house clean instead of just pointing fingers at prescribing doctors or governmental regulators.

“They are the choke-points in the U.S. prescription drug supply chain,” Mr. Walden said.

Lawmakers said the Sav-Rite pharmacy in Kermit, West Virginia — population 400 — received more than 11 million pills over the course of a few years.

“I mean, c’mon,” Ms. DeGette chided the companies.

“Our systems at the time were not automated enough, certainly, and we didn’t flag it fast enough and get it fast enough,” said McKesson CEO John H. Hammergren. “We terminated that relationship as soon as we became aware the purchases were as you described.”

Likewise, Cardinal Health said it now has a clearer set of standards and thresholds, so it will shut down suspicious orders automatically.

Mr. Barrett apologized, however, for failing to move faster in cutting off pharmacies in the towns of Williamson and Mount Gay-Shamrock, West Virginia.

“I am deeply sorry that we did not,” he testified.

The distributors also pointed fingers elsewhere. They said they cannot second-guess doctors who prescribe opioids and said the Drug Enforcement Administration should share more of its data so companies know whether a single pharmacy is using multiple suppliers.

AmeriSourceBergen CEO Steven H. Collis also said the industry needs clearer guidelines from the DEA on when to flag shipments.

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