In the wake of the “60 Minutes“/Washington Post story on the drug industry using its political influence to pass a law to undercut Drug Enforcement Administration’s ability to police pill-mill suppliers, the sponsors of the bill have lashed back, claiming they were simply acting in the interest of patients.
“Leave the conspiracy theories to Netflix,” wrote Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. In a column responding to the story, Hatch said the piece falsely depicted lawmakers as “in the pocket of the drug industry.”
Hatch wrote that he was concerned about reasonable access to drugs, and “with the support of patient advocates and others,” negotiated a version of the bill to introduce in the Senate.
Not only does the story provide robust evidence that pharmaceutical supply companies were involved in every step of the legislative process — with a drug lobbyist even ghostwriting the original bill — the patients rights’ organizations supporting the effort have extensive ties to the drug industry.
One of the primary letters to lawmakers in support of the legislation was signed by several self-described “patient advocacy and health professional” organizations, including the Alliance for Patient Access, a group that receives support from drug companies involved in the opioid industry.
The metadata of the letter, dated three days after the bill was introduced, shows a name unrelated to the patient groups that signed it. The document properties show that the letter was created by Kristen L. Freitas, the vice president for federal government affairs of the Healthcare Distributors Alliance. HDA is the trade group that represents McKesson, Cardinal Health, and AmerisourceBergen, the principal suppliers of pharmaceutical opioids in the country. Freitas, filings show, was one of the drug industry lobbyists working to influence lawmakers in support of the bill.
Freitas did not respond to a request for comment; neither did the patient organization that sponsored the letter.
An investigation last year by the Charleston Gazette-Mail revealed that major distributors had disregarded rules to report suspicious orders to the DEA while flooding West Virginia with over 480 million pain pills over a five year period. The unusually large shipments, from firms such as McKesson and Cardinal, have been directly linked to the skyrocketing opioid addiction problem in the region.
In 2016, there were 14,400 overdose deaths caused by prescription opioids, such as Percocet and Oxycontin. Many of the addicts that use increasingly popular street opioids, such as heroin and black market fentanyl, gained their addiction first through pain pills prescribed by a physician. A recent analysis found that over the next decade, opioid deaths could claim the lives of as many as 500,000 Americans.
In 2012, the DEA moved to temporarily revoke the license of a Cardinal Health distribution center in Florida after the firm was found violating its own internal safeguards and providing increasingly massive opioid shipments to several CVS pharmacies in the state.
The Cardinal incident provoked the industry to push back against the DEA. Cardinal hired former Department of Justice officials, including former Clinton administration Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick, to pressure the Obama administration against enforcement actions. D. Linden Barber, a former DEA official-turned industry lobbyist, drafted legislation that was given to Rep. Tom Marino, R-Penn., to curtail the DEA’s ability to revoke distributors’ licenses. After initially hitting a roadblock in 2014, the bill passed the following year. In July of this year, Linden secured a job working directly for Cardinal as the company’s chief regulatory counsel.
Campaign finance records show that the drug industry provided hefty donations to the legislators spearheading the legislation. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., two of the other sponsors of the legislation, received $5,000 each from the Healthcare Distribution Alliance PAC. Scott Gottlieb, now serving as President Donald Trump’s Food and Drug Administration chief, published a column sharply criticizing DEA action to revoke the Cardinal license, and, as we reported, later received speaking fees from the Healthcare Distribution Alliance and opioid manufacturers.
Backlash from the story has been swift. Several lawmakers have expressed an interest in repealing the law in question.
On Tuesday, in response to the story, Marino removed himself from consideration as the next federal drug czar, a position Trump had nominated him for.