The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) refused to explain why the agency essentially stopped immediately suspending pharmaceutical distributors that shipped suspicious volumes of opioids.
Immediate suspension orders were used in some cases to temporarily ban pharmaceutical distributors that were shipping millions of painkillers to communities with small populations. They were also used against pharmacies selling multiple times more pills than the typical drugstore.
The number of immediate suspension orders the DEA issued dropped from 65 in 2011 to five in 2015, according to the agency. The suspensions rose to nine in 2017. (RELATED: DEA Stopped Suspending Suspicious Drug Distributors Before Pro-Pharma Law Passed)
A DEA spokesman declined to tell The Daily Caller News Foundation why the agency’s use of the tool dropped so significantly.
“What led to the decline?” Rep. Greg Walden asked during a recent House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing. “Was there an internal decision that led to that? Are there people that are upset about it?”
“Why did the agency stop using that tool or dramatically reduce using that tool?” Walden, the Oregon Republican who chairs the committee, continued. “That’s the heart of the matter here. Who made those decisions?”
DEA deputy assistant administrator Neil Doherty was testifying for the hearing, but Walden didn’t address the questions to him. The chairman called on another congressman to continue questioning before letting Doherty answer.
Nearly 200,000 people have died from prescription opioid overdoses since 2000. President Donald Trump recently declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency.
In one instance, the DEA suspended a pharmaceutical distributor that shipped nearly 11 million oxycodone and hydrocodone pills to a West Virginia county with a population of 25,000, a joint Washington Post and “60 Minutes” investigation reported in October. In another, the DEA suspended a Walgreens warehouse that was distributing pills to some pharmacies that were selling nearly 14 times the number of opioids as a typical drugstore.
The DEA spokesman also refused to provide TheDCNF with the number of immediate suspension orders the agency issued before 2011. He said TheDCNF would need to file a Freedom of Information Act request, which can often take months or years to fulfill.
The DEA and the Department of Justice has delayed providing WaPo/60 Minutes with documents for nearly 18 months and has fully withheld others. WaPo is consequently suing the Department of Justice.
Similarly, the DEA has withheld documents regarding its fight against the opioid epidemic from Congress for months. Walden threatened to subpoena the agency, and fellow committee members encouraged him to do so. (RELATED: DEA Could Face Subpoena For Stonewalling Congress In Opioid Fight)
Dozens of DEA officials left the agency and joined the pharmaceutical industry, the WaPo/”60 Minutes” investigation found. Some then contacted high-ranking agency supervisors and sought to coordinate with distributors rather than suspending them.
DEA officials had to provide more and more evidence before issuing suspension orders.
Congress unanimously passed legislation in 2016 that effectively stripped the DEA’s ability to issue immediate suspension orders. The pharmaceutical industry contributed at least $1.5 million to the bill’s sponsors and cosponsors, WaPo/”60 Minutes” found.
The number of suspension orders issued in the year after the law’s enactment slightly increased from the year prior.
Doherty twice avoided telling the House Energy and Commerce Committee that Congress needed to amended the law. Acting DEA chief Robert Patterson previously said the law created challenges, but that the agency still effectively enforced opioid diversion with other tools.
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