WASHINGTON — A U.S. House of Representatives committee hearing became heated at times Wednesday as lawmakers continue to press for information regarding pill dumping in West Virginia, leading the committee chair to mention the use of a subpoena as one possibility for getting requested documents.
The leadership of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, as well as Reps. David McKinley of West Virginia and Diana DeGette of Colorado, said in an Oct. 13 letter to acting Drug Enforcement Administration administrator Robert Patterson they would like data regarding trends seen in the shipment of opioids to West Virginia.
The sought information includes the suppliers of the opioids and the total amount of hydrocodone and oxycodone shipped to six West Virginia ZIP codes.
The letter also asked for the information to be submitted by Oct. 27, this coming Friday.
Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., said the committee has had repeated problems with getting information for its investigation.
“I’m going to be very blunt: My patience is wearing thin,” Walden said in his opening statement.
“Our requests from DEA are met with delay, excuses and, frankly, inadequate response. People are dying. Lives and families are ruined. It’s time for DEA to get to this committee the information we need and to do it quickly.”
Walden asked Neil Doherty, the deputy assistant administrator of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, if he had the names of the companies that supplied a Kermit pharmacy with 9 million opioid pills during a two-year period, as well as the distributors who supplied an Oceana pharmacy with 600 times as many oxycodone pills than a nearby pharmacy between 2005 and 2016.
“We are reviewing the request from the committee, and I do not believe I have that data with me today,” he said.
Walden later asked Doherty if the information would be provided by Friday.
“We are preparing a response,” Doherty said.
Walden told Doherty the DEA has struggled to supply information related to the investigation in the past, noting how the committee was able to obtain documents from a separate and anonymous source pertaining to a May request.
“Enough is enough. Will you on behalf of the DEA commit today to producing the documents and information we’ve requested and soon? Or do I simply have to issue a subpoena? Because we are done waiting,” Walden said.
Doherty said the DEA is treating the opioid epidemic with “the utmost importance,” and the DEA will make efforts to assure outstanding requests are met.
Committee Vice Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, told Doherty requests are supposed to be answered.
“If I were you, I would go back, get the answers in plain English as quickly as possible,” he said. “If you don’t — and I know you’re just a spear carrier, not the decision maker at your agency — I am going to recommend to the chairman that we bring the wrath of this committee down on DEA.”
Committee Ranking Member Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said the committee’s bipartisan investigation cannot continue without cooperation from the DEA.
“I hope moving forward they can help us determine what systems failed in West Virginia and what needs to be done to make sure other communities are protected from such abusive practices,” he said.
McKinley, who represents the 1st Congressional District as a Republican, pressed federal agency representatives about how much money the state is receiving for combating drug addiction, noting how communities have been unable to receive federal resources in recent years.
“You all stood up, sat there and said how you are dedicated to this issue, and here we are in a desperate situation,” he said. “We’re underwater. We put in a grant and we’re turned down.”
McKinley added the Department of Health and Human Services distributed $144 million in funding to combat opioid addiction, in which he said West Virginia received none of that money.
“Are we telling these little counties and towns that have two or three hundred people you have to get a grant writer to submit something for it?” he asked. “They can’t afford it. They don’t know how to do it.”
McKinley then told the agency representatives to “get out of the Beltway” and see firsthand the communities struggling in addressing opioid addiction.
Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Drug Abuse, said she has been to communities in West Virginia and partnerships need to be created to address drug addiction in rural America.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdoses with more than 41 people per 100,000.