Politics & Government

DEA didn’t bring concerns over pill dumping bill to us, NC representatives say

This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York.
This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. AP

No one from the Drug Enforcement Administration expressed concerns to him about a now controversial drug bill that he co-sponsored twice before it became law, and the money the drug industry poured into Congress did not alter the vote, a North Carolina representative said this week.

Rep. George Holding co-sponsored the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2013 and of 2014. Neither became law. A Senate bill with the same name — and only small changes — unanimously passed both chambers of Congress in 2016 and was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Holding did not co-sponsor the House version of that bill because, he said, he was not a member of the Judiciary Committee any longer and was not asked.

Holding is one of two dozen co-sponsors of one or more of the four bills.

Now the bill and its sponsors are in the spotlight after an explosive report from The Washington Post and “60 Minutes.” The piece — The Drug Industry’s Triumph Over the DEA – highlights how the drug industry hired DEA and Justice Department officials to chip away at investigations and costly fines for suspicious shipments of millions of pills, eventually convincing Congress to pass a law that significantly raised the threshold for the DEA to stop shipments of drugs and fine companies.

In one well-publicized example, drug companies shipped more than 9 million hydrocodone pills to a single pharmacy in a West Virginia town of less than 400 people over a two-year period.

This was happening at a time when American deaths from opioid abuse were skyrocketing. Opioids, including prescription and illicit drugs, were involved in 33,091 deaths in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 183,000 deaths in the U.S. were attributable to overdoses related to prescription opioids from 1999 to 2015, including more than 15,000 in 2015 alone, according to the CDC.

President Donald Trump planned to declare a public health emergency on the opioid epidemic Thursday.

Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican who sponsored all of the House bills and was seen as an advocate for better cooperation with the drug industry, withdrew from consideration to be the Trump administration’s drug czar after the report was published.

“‘60 Minutes’ and the Washington Post say Congress passed a bill last year that will make it harder for the DEA to stop illegal opioid sales – because drug distribution companies wanted the bill passed,” Holding said. “Since the bill passed unanimously, for that to be correct, Washington lobbyists would have had to get every Republican and every Democrat in Congress, plus President Obama, to support a bad bill.”

Holding has received more than $185,000 from pharmaceutical manufacturers and other health-related suppliers, according to the Center For Responsive Politics. He received $102,500 from those sectors during the 2016 cycle and has already received $47,000 in the 2018 cycle. At least three other North Carolina representatives, including Democrats David Price and G.K. Butterfield and Republican Patrick McHenry, have taken in more from those sectors in their careers. Butterfield got more in the 2016 cycle.

The bill, supporters said, was to clear up vague language in the law.

Previously under the Controlled Substances Act, the DEA could stop suspicious drug shipments if they presented an “imminent danger to the public health and safety.” The bill defined that as “an immediate threat of death, serious bodily harm, or abuse of a controlled substance due to a registrant’s failure to maintain effective controls against diversion.”

The switch from imminent to immediate, argued critics in The Post piece, made it nearly impossible for the DEA to bring cases. Such cases have fallen from 65 in fiscal year 2011 to eight, according to The Post, even as the opioid crisis continues to devastate communities across the nation.

“This bill was supposed to 1) ensure patients who need prescription drug painkillers can get them, and 2) clarify a vague law. If, instead, the bill creates a problem, then we need to fix it,” Holding said in emailed responses to questions. “... As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen how vague laws can do a lot of harm so I supported the bill.”

Rep. Ted Budd, another North Carolina Republican, is co-sponsoring legislation, the Restoring Enforcement Standards to Track Opioids Responsively and Effectively Act, to repeal the bill. It is one of several repeal measures in Congress.

“Pill diversions to corrupt pain clinics are a major part of the problem, and this bill gives the Drug Enforcement Administration the capability it needs to fight back,” Budd said.

Though several former DEA officials are quoted in The Post story, Holding and Rep. Richard Hudson, another North Carolina Republican, said they did not hear from the agency during the debate over the vote.

The DEA did hold a call with staff members of Judiciary Committee members — Holding was on the committee — in 2014, during which a DEA official reportedly told staffers “You’ll be protecting criminals” by passing the legislation.

“No one with the DEA contacted me about the bills in either 2014 or 2016, which would be odd if the DEA opposed the bills because as a former prosecutor, who prosecuted drug cases, I’ve worked closely with DEA agents and support the DEA,” said Holding, whose district includes parts of Wake and Johnston counties.

One of Holding’s Democratic challengers said the episode showed the “hoops Washington politicians will jump through to serve their special interest bosses.”

“While the DEA was ringing alarm bells about deaths the flood of opioids was causing, George Holding tried to kick open the floodgates for the opioid manufacturers funding his campaign, putting communities here in North Carolina at even greater risk,” Sam Searcy said.

“The DEA has never expressed any concerns about the bill we passed,” said Hudson, who was invited to attend Trump’s announcement at the White House on Thursday.

Brian Murphy: 202.383.6089; Twitter: @MurphinDC