US House committee irritated by DEA’s refusal to provide opioid information

WASHINGTON — Members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce Committee said at a press conference Tuesday the Drug Enforcement Administration has “all but stonewalled” inquiry efforts regarding how drug distributors shipped millions of prescription pills shipped to states with little resistance.

The request was made as part of the committee’s effort to understand the factors that contributed to the national opioid epidemic. Lawmakers recently asked for information regarding the declining use of immediate suspension orders, which instruct distributors to halt drug shipments.

“After months of delays, they promised to finally produce documents that we asked for,” Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden, R-Ore., said. “What we got back? What we got back was a lot of black ink.”

Walden showed reporters multiple black pages, signifying information that had been redacted.

“They need to understand we’re done waiting,” he said. “We’ve had it.”

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said lawmakers cannot best address the opioid epidemic unless agencies provide as much requested information as legally permitted.

“Is it economics? Is it education level? There are a lot of things we have to work with and need to find out, and we’re not getting the cooperation from the DEA,” he said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia has the highest fatal drug overdose rate in the country at 52 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016. The White House Council of Economic Advisers reported in November the economic cost of the opioid epidemic in 2015 was $504 billion, around 2.8 percent of the national gross domestic product.

The committee published in January a report accusing drug wholesalers of shipping more than 20 million pain pills to two pharmacies in Williamson.

The Washington Post and “60 Minutes” reported in October the DEA’s ability to stop narcotic shipments has been curbed because of a 2016 law, which was passed without objection. Walden said Tuesday the use of immediate suspension orders declined prior to the policy, decreasing from 65 orders in 2011 to five in 2015.

“We ask for this kind of information from other agencies all the time, and other agencies cooperate with us all the time,” he said. “DEA cooperated by getting out their black felt marker and saying, ‘We’re not going to send you this information.'”

Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Diana DeGette, D-Colo., said the DEA has provided limited information.

“We need to understand whether the key systems that were designed to prevent these illegal diversion of opioids broke down from the distributor level and with law enforcement,” she said. “We can’t do that without the cooperation of the DEA.”

McKinley said constituents at a recent town hall event voiced concerns about the lack of efforts by the federal government to address the drug epidemic. He added the DEA needs to be cooperative with the committee’s efforts before the epidemic gets worse.

“This is killing our children,” he said of the opioid crisis. “This is devastating families. We have a responsibility in Congress to try to pick up this and solve it.”

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