Drug supply firm execs say they didn’t cause opioids crisis

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top executives of the nation’s leading wholesale drug distributors told Congress under oath Tuesday that their companies didn’t help cause the nation’s deadly opioid epidemic, drawing bipartisan wrath that included one lawmaker suggesting prison terms for some company officials.

The confrontation came at a House subcommittee hearing at which legislators asked why huge numbers of potentially addictive prescription opioid pills had been shipped to West Virginia, among the states hardest hit by the drug crisis. Lawmakers are making an election-year push for legislation aimed at curbing a growing epidemic that saw nearly 64,000 people die last year from drug overdoses, two-thirds from opioids.

Company officials’ responses ranged from apologies to explanations to finger-pointing at doctors who prescribe the drugs, pharmacies that fill prescriptions and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for not doing enough as overseer of sales of legally controlled substances.

In a scene that recalled Congress’ 1994 grilling of tobacco industry officials, House Energy and Commerce investigations subcommittee Chairman Gregg Harper, R-Miss., administered oaths to the heads of five pharmaceutical distributors and asked each if “the actions you or your company took contributed to the opioid epidemic.”

Answering no were the leaders of the nation’s three biggest distribution firms: McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp., which dominate the U.S. market. The only yes came from Joseph Mastandrea, chief of the smaller Miami-Luken Inc., while the former chief of H.D. Smith Wholesale Drug Company also said no.

The denials drew an angry response from GOP Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia, where federal figures show 884 people died from drug overdoses in 2016. That gives the state the nation’s highest overdose death rate — 52 out of 100,000 people. Other states with high death rates included Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire, plus Washington, D.C.

“The fury inside me right now is bubbling over,” said McKinley. He said he found the denial of responsibility “particularly offensive” and he wondered aloud about the proper punishment.

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