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Hill Panel Probing Opioids Abuse Targets Distributor Firms

Prescription drugs on a shelf
Daylina Miller/WUSF
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Congressional investigators say wholesale pharmaceutical distributors shipped hundreds of millions of prescription opioid pills to West Virginia, a state disproportionately ravaged by deaths caused by the addictive drugs. Now, lawmakers want executives of those companies to explain how that happened.

Current and former officials from five distributor companies are set to give sworn testimony on the subject Tuesday to a House subcommittee. Their appearances come during an election-year push by Congress to pass largely modest legislation aimed at curbing a growing epidemic that saw nearly 64,000 people die last year from drug overdoses, with two-thirds of those deaths involving opioids.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee began investigating the distribution of prescription opioids last May. The panel has said distributors sent more than 780 million pills of hydrocodone and oxycodone — prescription pain-killers that have caused many overdose deaths — to West Virginia from 2007 to 2012. That's an average of more than 400 pills per person over that period in the state, where around 1.8 million people live.

Investigators said 20.8 million opioid pills were shipped from 2006 to 2016 to Williamson, population 2,900. One pharmacy in Kermit, with around 400 residents, ranked 22nd in the U.S. in the number of hydrocodone pills it received in 2006, according to the investigation.

West Virginia had the nation's highest drug overdose death rate of 52 per 100,000 in 2016, according to federal figures. Other states with high death rates included Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, as well as Washington, D.C.

Nearly 12 million people misused opioids in 2016, according to federal figures.

Executives slated to testify included top officials from Cardinal Health Inc., AmerisourceBergen Corp. and McKesson Corp., the nation's three biggest wholesale drug distributors. The executives were appearing before the Energy and Commerce committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee.

The government requires distributors of controlled substances to report suspicious drug orders to the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and to deny questionable transactions.

The Trump administration and lawmakers of both parties have been drawing attention to opioids, a range of pain-killing drugs that can be addictive when misused. They include prescription drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone and codeine, synthetic opioids like fentanyl that can be made illegally, and illegal drugs like heroin.

The Energy and Commerce panel has been working on dozens of bills that include encouraging doctors to use non-addictive pain killers, spurring research on such products, broadening access to treatment and giving financial incentives for drug treatment specialists to work in underserved areas. Senate committees are working on their own legislation.

The setting was reminiscent of 1994 hearings at which executives of the nation's tobacco companies testified before the Energy and Commerce panel, then controlled by Democrats. The officials said they didn't believe cigarettes were addictive, despite evidence to the contrary.

Four years later, the industry reached a settlement to pay the states more than $200 billion over 25 years to reimburse them for tobacco-related health care costs.