The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Drug company executives said they didn’t contribute to the opioid epidemic. Nearly 2,000 communities say otherwise.

At a House subcommittee hearing in May 2018, four out of five leaders of opioid distributors testified their companies did not contribute to the epidemic. (Video: House Committee on Energy and Commerce)

On May 8, 2018, a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee summoned five executives of the nation’s largest drug distribution companies to testify about the massive quantity of pain pills they had shipped into West Virginia, which has the highest opioid overdose rate in the country.

The executives stood in the packed hearing room and raised their right hands as they were sworn in before testifying in front of the lawmakers.

“I think it would be helpful at the outset to help establish a baseline of understanding,” chairman and then-Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.) said. “Do you believe that the actions that you or your company took contributed to the opioid epidemic?”

“No, sir, I do not believe that we contributed to the opioid crisis,” George Barrett, then chairman of the board of Cardinal Health, testified.

“No,” said John Hammergren, then chief executive of McKesson Corp.

“H.D. Smith conducted itself responsibly and discharged its obligations,” said J. Christopher Smith, former president and CEO of H.D. Smith

“Is that a no?” Harper asked.

“That is a no,” Smith said.

“It’s a no for AmerisourceBergen,” said Steven Collis, the company’s chairman.

Only one executive accepted responsibility: Joseph Mastandrea, chairman of Miami-Luken.

“Yes,” Mastandrea said.

A previously secret Drug Enforcement Administration database made public on Monday shows that those five companies distributed 35 billion doses of oxycodone and hydrocodone from 2006 through 2012 across the nation. McKesson distributed 14.1 billion; Cardinal 10.7 billion; AmerisourceBergen 8.9 billion; H.D. Smith 1.1 billion and Miami-Luken 115 million, according to a Washington Post analysis of the data.

76 billion pills: Newly released data unmasks the epidemic

Four of those five distributors are among the two dozen drug companies being sued by nearly 2,000 towns, cities and counties that allege the companies knowingly flooded their communities with opioids. The fifth company, Miami-Luken, has since gone out of business. Last week, two executives at Mastrandrea’s company were indicted on federal drug distribution charges.

Both McKesson and Cardinal Health have paid hefty fines to settle DEA enforcement actions for allegedly failing to report suspicious drug orders: McKesson has paid $163 million in two settlements and Cardinal has paid $68 million in two settlements of its own.

In statements to The Post on Tuesday in response to the release of the DEA database, several drug companies issued broad defenses of their actions during the opioid epidemic. They have said previously that they were trying to sell legal painkillers to legitimate pain patients who had prescriptions. They have blamed the epidemic on overprescribing by physicians and also on corrupt doctors and pharmacists who worked in “pill mills” that handed out drugs with few questions asked. The companies also said they should not be held responsible for the actions of people who abused the drugs.

Read more in this series:

Internal drug company emails show indifference to opioid epidemic

Opioid death rates soared in communities where pain pills flowed

Follow The Post’s investigation of the opioid epidemic