The Washington Post and 60 Minutes reported on how drug companies neutered the DEA, leading to huge profits and tens of thousands of opioid related deaths. The reporting comes at a time when the country is in the midst of grappling with an opioid epidemic that has claimed nearly 200,000 deaths since the year 2000.
The report also details the key role Representative Tom Marino (R-PA) played in crafting the law that resulted in destroying the DEA’s ability to regulate drug suppliers. Donald Trump nominated Marino to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Let’s look at what brought us to this point and what can be done to fix some of the problems that now exist.
For an overview of facts and a primer on the opioid crisis, check out an article we did in August.
Typically we prefer to compare multiple media outlets covering a single story. But today we are looking at a report conducted by the Washington Post and therefore has not garnered responses from other media outlets. They may be forthcoming in the next week as Trump announced he is re-examining his nomination of Marino based on this report.
A summary can not do the reporting justice, but we will try. The full Washington Post report, “The Drug Industry’s Triumph Over the DEA” is worth reading.
Here are the key points:
– There is an opioid epidemic in the US, killing hundreds of thousands of people and causing huge damages in communities across the country
– The epidemic is driven by legal painkillers/opioids
– The DEA used to have the authority to stop pharmacies selling suspiciously high amounts of painkillers
– The drug industry responded by hiring former DEA employees to exploit legal loopholes and coerce Congress with donations
– Congress passed a law in 2016 that made it nearly impossible for the DEA to suspend suspicious pharmacies
– This effort was led by Rep. Tom Marino, who is nominated to regulate the same drug companies committing these acts
What do we mean by “suspicious” pharmacies?
The article points out that the average pharmacy sells 74,000 painkillers a year. Yet there are some Walgreens selling more than a million a year, suggesting that the opioids are being resold to addicts on the street, and/or consumed well beyond treatment purposes.
Key quote (there are many within the article):
“When you’re selling half a million pills to some pharmacy and you’re telling me that you don’t know what the rules are for a suspicious order?” said Geldhof [Note: Jim Geldhof, former DEA employee handling Program Management of diversion control in Detroit], who is now working as a consultant to lawyers suing the industry. “All we were looking for is a good-faith effort by these companies to do the right thing, and there was no good-faith effort. Greed always trumped compliance. It did every time. It was about money, and it’s as simple as that.”
Why is this important?
Millions of Americans know someone who lost their life to opioids. Governors from both major political parties have called this a crisis. The issue would then appear to extend beyond those who are addicted to opioids and everybody else.
Financially, the crisis has cost tens of billions of dollars a year. This comes in the form of social services, policing, and health services. These are costs paid for by taxpayers.
Was passing Marino’s law reasonable?
The law was passed with little contention in 2016. Keep in mind, President Obama signed the law. The argument made in the Post is that many were unaware of the full consequences of the law. Hearing that defense made by lawmakers sounds pretty flimsy at first. The Post couches it by describing the extensive lobbying campaign waged by the drug industry. The ones who knew the most about it were the ones paid off. The attitude of lawmakers was that there was a problem and that it could best be solved by working together with private industry.
Another “reason” (you can decide whether it’s sound or not) is that in a vacuum, companies are better at running their businesses than regulators. Removing poor regulations allows a company to deliver on its promise. In this case, the promise is to provide pain relief. The results showed up in the drug industry’s bottom line – billions of dollars are made.
The counterargument implicitly made by the Post is that the bottom line was growing by feeding a deadly addiction. The drug industry displayed no recognition of the impacts of its product on a vulnerable population. Congress displayed no interest in scrutinizing the premise that laws work best when regulators and business work together.
Should it be changed?
If you’ve decided the law is working well – business is booming for drug suppliers – than the answer is an easy no.
If you’ve decided that the massive deliveries of narcotics to pharmacies is playing some role – large or small – in the opioid epidemic, then you are halfway to yes.
Drug companies would argue that if you clamp down on suppliers, you are creating a black market. Profits will go to illegal dealers. The addiction will not be stemmed.
A counter-argument would be that cutting down on supply does in fact reduce demand. Profits to drug companies are not worth the cost to society. The addiction can be stemmed, and this is one of multiple steps to take in doing so.
What can be done?
There’s already fallout from this story. Trump announced today that he’d be looking into Marino’s nomination as a result of this story.
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) also came out against the law today. This is newsworthy because he is from a state very hard hit by the opioid addiction and because the law was sponsored by a combination of Democrats and Republicans.
But the action taken should be to help those who are addicted or those who are impacted by the addiction. If you support the status quo, do nothing.
Otherwise, call your Senator and let them know it’s important. Write to your local newspaper and raise awareness of this issue. Draw attention to Walgreen’s and pharmacies that are profiting from this. Thing will not change without speaking out.