Published On: Wed, May 9th, 2018

Major drug distributors downplay contribution to opioid crisis in testimony before Congress

The heads of five major drug distribution companies downplayed their contribution to the opioid crisis on Tuesday while testifying before a Congressional subcommittee tasked with investigating the epidemic spurred by abuse of opioids. Their testimony drew bipartisan wrath and one Republican suggested prison terms for some company officials. 

Miami-Luken CEO Joseph Mastandrea told the House panel that his company played a role in the opioid crisis, but executives from the other four drug distributors demurred saying the responsibility lied with prescribers and pharmacists more than it did with distributors.

While staying firm that his company is not responsible for the opioid crisis, Cardinal Health CEO George Barrett apologized for not doing more to stop large shipments of prescription painkillers from flooding into rural communities in West Virginia.

“I want to express my personal regret for our judgements that we’d make differently today, with regard for two pharmacies,” Barrett said. “With the benefit of hindsight I wish we would have moved faster and answered a different set of questions….today I am confident we would have reached different conclusions.”

Rep. David McKinley, R-West Virginia, expressed outrage that distributors declined to accept responsibility for fueling the opioid epidemic by shipping massive quantities of pills into in to rural communities in his state. McKinley did not assist in the subcommittee investigation, but joined the hearing today to question distributors.

“The fury inside of me right now is bubbling over,” Mckinley said while questioning the distributors, “and for several of you to say you had no role in this whatsoever I find particularly offensive.”

“Just a slap on the wrist, some financial penalty?” he asked. “Or should there be time spent for participation in this? I just want you to feel shame.”

McKinley pointed to the distributors’ failure to forward suspicious order reports sent to the DEA to the state pharmacy board of West Virginia between 2001 and 2014. “That was the genesis, that’s when this disease started to take a hold,” he told the panel, saying the lack of information provided to the state prevented local authorities from having a full grasp of the problem they were facing at the time.  

Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, drug distributors are required to deny suspicious orders for drugs and report them to the DEA.

While distributors have been responsible for reporting suspicious orders for more than 40 years, some told members of Congress their screening systems had failed. In one case a distributor didn’t have basic, up-to-date information about Controlled Substances Act license holders until 2013 . Regional distributor Miami-Luken’s CEO told the panel his company purchased the DEA’s up-to-date list of license holders only after discovering his company was under investigation. 

AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health, and McKesson — often known as the big three drug distributors, shipping 80 percent of prescription drugs in the United States, say their current systems for detecting suspicious orders has been greatly improved in recent years, relying more on algorithms to automatically detect issues.

Even with the changes to its screening system, McKesson, was fined $ 150 million last year for failing to report suspicious orders. In late 2016, Cardinal was fined $ 44 million.

McKesson says they plan to switch to all-electronic prescriptions with their partners by 2019 in order to further curb abuse.

CBS News’ Laura Strickler and Alex Derosier contributed to this report. 

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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