Opioid Dealers Testify to House Energy and Commerce Committee

The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing today with executives from the country’s largest pharmaceutical distribution corporations. They wanted answers to some pretty basic questions, like why did they ship “12.3 million doses of powerful prescription opioids to the Family Discount Pharmacy in Mount Gay-Shamrock, W.Va., from 2006 to 2014”? According to the 2010 census, Mount Gay-Shamrock has under 1,800 residents. In fact, this wasn’t an isolated incident.

A single pharmacy in Kermit, W. Va., a town of about 400 people, received nearly 9 million hydrocodone pills over two years.

“There is no logical explanation we can find for why a town of approximately 400 people would receive nearly 9 million opioid pills in two years,” said Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Pulling out my calculator, that’s nine million pills for 400 people, which equals 22,500 pills per person. This was over the course of two years, so that’s 11,250 opioid pills per person per year. That comes out to 31 pills per person per day.

The results for the people of West Virginia are as stark as they are obvious.

In 2016, West Virginia had the highest rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States―a rate of 43.4 deaths per 100,000―and up from a low 1.8 deaths per 100,000 in 1999. The number of overdose deaths peaked at 733 deaths in 2016 with the majority of deaths attributed to synthetic opioids and heroin. Since 2010, deaths related to synthetic opioid deaths quadrupled from 102 to 435 deaths and deaths related to heroin rose from 28 to 235 deaths.

These executives are reluctant to take any blame for this.

Each executive said their companies have taken steps to prevent the diversion of drugs and to help fight the opioid crisis. They argued that their companies do not manufacture or prescribe drugs; they fulfill orders from pharmacies. Distributors, they argue, are not responsible for overprescribing medications. The companies also say that opioid painkillers account for a small portion of their overall business.

“As an intermediary in the pharmaceutical supply chain, Cardinal Health does not ultimately control either the supply of or the demand for opioids,” [Cardinal Health Executive Chairman George] Barrett said.

I don’t agree with Republican Rep. David McKinley about much, but I agree with him here:

“I am so frustrated for the people in West Virginia and across this country that you all have not … stepped up and took more responsibility for this,” said Rep. David B. McKinley (R-W. Va.), his voice rising. “The fury inside me right now is bubbling over.”

If the opioid crisis hasn’t hit your family or your community in a way that has forced you to get involved in seeing the carnage up close and personal, your fury may not be bubbling over about this. Count yourself lucky, but you shouldn’t be complacent because this crisis knows no boundaries and respects no one.

During the whole course of the crisis, West Virginia has been drifting further and further to the right. Today the state’s voters may nominate a man to be their senator who is most famous for running a mine that didn’t follow safety regulations, exploded, and left 29 coal miners dead. He seems to many like a better option than mainstream Republicans and certainly any Democrats.

This is what happens when you poison an entire state with lethal pharmaceuticals and then do nothing about the problems it creates. People lose faith in both parties and start looking for magical solutions, like Trump or Blankenship.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.