Even as President Donald Trump was preparing to declare the opioid crisis a public health emergency, a Republican congressman was criticizing the federal Drug Enforcement Agency for stonewalling an investigation to help solve the problem.
Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) criticized the DEA for failure to cooperate with a congressional investigation into alleged opioid pill dumping by major drug companies in West Virginia. About 9 million hydrocodone pills were shipped over two years to a single pharmacy in a rural town of fewer than 400 people. The DEA has not yet released the identities of the companies suspected of supplying the pills.
“To me, this is a pretty basic question. Who are the suppliers?” Walden said.
Walden, who heads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is conducting the probe, threatened to issue a subpoena for the information “because we are done waiting.”
“I’m going to be very blunt: My patience is wearing thin. Our requests for data from the DEA are met with delay, excuses and, frankly, inadequate response,” Walden said as he opened a committee hearing Wednesday. “People are dying. Lives and families are ruined. It is time for DEA to get this committee the information we need, and to do it quickly. No more dodges. No more delays.”
He pointed out that opioid overdoses last year alone killed “more Americans than the entire Vietnam War.” In his state of Oregon, overdoses kill more people than car accidents. An estimated 91 lives are lost in the nation each day due to opioid overdoses.
Walden said the committee was still missing information requested from DEA back in May. DEA officials said they were “unaware” of some information, such as data concerning delayed or blocked enforcement action against drug companies, according to Walden. Yet the committee managed to obtain the information from an anonymous source. “Enough is enough,” said the irritated congressman.
“Sir, we appreciate your concern and, absolutely, we are treating it with the utmost importance, as it should be treated,” DEA Deputy Assistant Administrator Neil Doherty told Walden at the hearing. “There is no reason for the extended delay of the questions. ... We will make every effort to expedite every request that is outstanding.”
An investigation earlier this month by The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” revealed that Congress — pressed by pharmaceutical company lobbyists and wooed with campaign contributions — stripped the DEA last year of key crackdown tactics against companies whose drugs end up on the streets.
Trump had nominated Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), a pivotal supporter of the DEA limits, to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. But Marino withdrew his name from consideration after the Post report.
West Virginia counties have filed suit against drug companies and pharmacies, and other states are now taking similar action.
Many of the regions that backed Trump in last year’s election are being hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic. On Thursday, the president stopped short of declaring the problem a national emergency, which could have freed billions of dollars for the fight. His declaration of a public health emergency did not specifically release funds or name an amount to address the problem, but he is expected to ask for extra money to battle the crisis, The New York Times reported.