Leahy, Wyden Alarmed by Decreased DEA Enforcement of Pharmaceutical Distributors

While Opioid Crisis Worsened, Number of DEA Cases Against Pharmaceutical Distributors Dropped Significantly, Recent Reports Say

WASHINGTON – Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., today sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch following reports published by the Washington Post concerning  the Justice Department’s oversight of major pharmaceutical distributors that dispense opioid-based pain drugs .

The reports detail the slowdown of diversion enforcement by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The reports also include troubling allegations that wholesale drug distributors sought to reach favorable resolutions to pending investigations by going around the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control and pressing higher level officials within the Justice Department. This situation appears to have led to prescription painkiller drugs being diverted for longer periods of time to ”pill mills” that sell drugs illegally, further fueling an epidemic that takes the lives of tens of thousands of Americans every year.

“We are concerned that the number of enforcement actions initiated by the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Diversion Control decreased significantly over the past five years,” the senators wrote. “This startling decrease in enforcement activity occurred just as our nation began to confront the scope of the opioid epidemic—and just as the over-prescription of powerful opioid painkillers was recognized as a major driver of the crisis.”

The letter requests that the Justice Department provide information including data regarding the number of diversion cases being pursued against wholesale pharmaceutical distributors, policy changes that may have led to the drop in cases, and how the DEA ensures distributors act quickly on internal complaints about potential diversion of narcotic painkillers. It also requests that the Department provide settlements made with major wholesalers Cardinal Health and McKesson Corp.

The Post estimates that between 2011 and 2014, the number of civil case filings against pharmaceutical distributors, manufacturers and doctors dropped from 131, to 40. These numbers showcase a significant decrease in enforcement by the DEA against these companies, which is believed to have led to the diversion of pills into the wrong hands, further contributing to their misuse and illegal sale.

The opioid crisis has become one of the deadliest and most costly epidemics the United States in recent history. An opioid overdose claims a life every 20 minutes in the United States—78 people every day—which is a fourfold increase since 1999. Private spending on substance abuse treatment is expected to reach $42.1 billion by 2020, compared to the $24.3 billion spent in 2009. The epidemic is placing a significant strain on public health programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, which are predicted to contribute to over a third of expected spending on treatment and prevention.

The full letter can be found here