Next week, top executives from the nation’s largest distributors of prescription painkillers will testify before Congress about the role their companies played in the deadliest drug crisis in U.S. history.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that if he were still senator, he would have tough questions and choice words for the company executives.
“This has been a colossal detriment to America, and you have profited enormously by it,” Sessions said he would tell them. “And I’m not shedding any tears if you’re no longer making profits.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, Sessions said “I don’t have sympathy” for the distributors that are accused of flooding communities with powerful prescription painkillers. “They’ve made a bunch of money. Some of them have done it the right way, I know. But at some point, I think it’s fair to say that they were slow to recognize how much damage was being done.”
Sessions’s comments come as questions mount over how much responsibility opioid manufacturers, distributors and others within the supply pipeline bear for the epidemic that kills tens of thousands each year.
In recent months, Sessions has taken an aggressive approach, both with his rhetoric and a string of new initiatives. He said he was affected by the book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic,” and the story of Purdue Pharma’s campaign to market OxyContin.
“Have you read ‘Dreamland’?” he asked. “For the first time, you get a glimpse of how it really developed.”
Sessions has proposed limiting the amount of opioids that companies can manufacture each year. He announced that the Drug Enforcement Administration also will share with 48 state attorneys general information from a database that monitors the flow of painkillers from manufacturers to distribution points, with hopes that it will aid their investigations.
The ARCOS database tracks controlled-substance transactions reported by manufacturers and distributors to the DEA. Much of the information is confidential, but Sessions said he would consider making more data available to the public.
He also created a task force to target drug manufacturers and distributors, raising the possibility of filing criminal charges against them if they break the law.
Purdue Pharma, which was fined $634 million for claiming its drug OxyContin was less addictive than other pain medications, declined to comment on Sessions’s remarks.
Cardinal Health said in a statement that it agrees with Sessions’s desire to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions and that the company “cares deeply about the devastation opioid abuse has caused American families and communities and we are at the table to help solve this complex national public health crisis.” Cardinal Health was fined $44 million in 2016 to resolve allegations that it failed to report suspicious orders of narcotics. In 2008, Cardinal paid a $34 million fine to settle similar allegations.
McKesson Corp. said that as a distributor it “does not drive demand or ‘dump pills’ — we fulfill orders placed by DEA-registered pharmacies, which correspond to prescriptions written by DEA-registered doctors.” McKesson agreed to pay $150 million in fines in January to resolve allegations that it failed to report suspicious orders of narcotics. In 2008, the company paid a $13 million fine for similar allegations.
John M. Gray, president and chief executive of the Healthcare Distribution Alliance, a trade group that represents distributors, said: “Distributors have no role in driving demand for pharmaceuticals, including opioids, and do not manufacture, prescribe or dispense medicines.”
A spokeswoman for the group that represents manufacturers said it supports a “wide array of proposals to prevent abuse and addiction.”
Opioid overdoses killed more than 42,000 people in 2016. A study released Tuesday by the National Institute on Drug Abuse said that 45.9 percent of these deaths involved fentanyl, a powerful synthetic painkiller, and that 40.4 percent involved prescription opioids.
The Justice Department filed a “statement of interest” in the lawsuits against drug companies brought by cities, counties and Native American tribes seeking reimbursement for the costs of the drug crisis. States and cities say their budgets are strained from the costs incurred as a result. Jails are over capacity. First-responder budgets are stretched. The number of children in foster care is at a record high.
The judge in the multi-jurisdictional case, Dan Aaron Polster, has said he wants to see a speedy settlement that will help end the opioid crisis. He has scheduled the first trials for March 2019.
The Justice Department argued in a court filing that the nation has deployed “extensive resources” to fight the opioid crisis, which has created a “substantial economic burden” on the federal government. Sessions said that the federal government also should be repaid for the costs it has borne.
“We believe that there have been improprieties in drug distribution,” Sessions told The Post. “We have an interest because the government has paid for a lot of this excess. A lot of this is paid for by Medicare, Medicaid, the [Department of Veterans Affairs]. And so we have an interest financially also.”
In Congress, a House Energy and Commerce Committee oversight panel is investigating whether drug distributors pumped millions of highly addictive pills into West Virginia, which has the nation’s highest rate of overdose deaths. Next Tuesday, current and former drug-company executives are scheduled to testify before the panel and expected to be grilled about why their companies flooded the state’s small communities with pills.
Sessions said that one of “the most significant” steps he has taken has been to create the Justice Department’s Opioid Fraud and Abuse Detection Unit, which focuses on investigating and prosecuting health-care fraud related to prescription opioids, including “pill mill” schemes and pharmacies that illegally divert or dispense prescription opioids.
“That has led to lots of investigations all over the country, and it’s pretty stunning, really,” Sessions said. “Sixteen doctors in [the] last takedown prescribed 20 million opioid pills. And one doctor we raided received $1 million in cash at his house. Lots of them have just made huge amounts of money.”
Scott Higham contributed to this report.