Federal incompetence cost West Virginian lives

Our office has believed for a long time that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration was asleep at the switch during some of the most critical years of the opioid crisis.

Now we have concrete proof in the form of a shocking new report — the results of a years-long investigation by our office.

The DEA is supposed to protect citizens by controlling the production of dangerous drugs like prescription opioids. The agency is supposed to limit production of these drugs to what is necessary for the country’s legitimate medical and scientific needs.

Unfortunately, as the opioid crisis raged and pills were being diverted away from legitimate medical uses to abuse on an unprecedented scale, the DEA allowed more and more and more pain pills to be produced.

When one sees the massive increases in production that occurred on the DEA’s watch, you wonder how local, state and federal officials even had a fighting chance to stem the growing tide of opioid prescriptions and subsequent deaths.

Our office became the first and only state to launch an investigation because we knew the DEA wasn’t living up to its mission.

We filed multiple Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with DEA to delve into what the agency was — or wasn’t — doing to limit production of highly-addictive painkillers that have cost so many West Virginians their lives.

Our persistence was met with roadblocks but that didn’t stop our determination. This led our office and our office alone to file suit against DEA in late 2017, a lawsuit that achieved sweeping reforms of the nation’s drug quota system.

Our investigation clearly shows that there were problems.

At least between 2010 and 2016, the DEA was not even attempting to account for opioid diversion and abuse when it set production limits.

What’s worse, DEA abdicated its role of setting these limits, in many cases, to the drugmakers’ projections.

Drugmakers told the DEA that opioid sales were projected to grow, which is unsurprising given the addiction crisis raging across the country. The DEA took these projections at face value and wouldn’t question whether those growing sales were due to abuse, or to legitimate medical need.

The DEA substituted industry want and agency incompetence for patients’ actual medical needs — utterly unacceptable on every level for the American public.

While overdose deaths skyrocketed, the DEA’s oxycodone quota was as much as 247 percent greater than what the FDA projected was necessary. The DEA’s hydrocodone quota was nearly twice as much as the projected need.

So what happened after the DEA left the floodgate open?

Patients were inundated with unneeded pills, which were ripe for theft or resale on the black market. Three-quarters of opioid abusers obtain their pills through these avenues, broadly known as “diversion.”

The DEA’s failure to prevent diversion before it happened meant everyone else had to play catch-up. And while all levels of government were struggling to contain the fallout, still the DEA did nothing to correct its approach.

There is a lot of work that needs to be done to make sure that government is not part of the problem, enabling drug overdose and senseless death.

American lives hang in the balance.

DEA is making great strides under President Trump and Attorney General Barr, beginning to change its procedures following reforms brought on by our office’s actions.

In recent years the opioid quotas have been trending down.

Moving forward, we would like to see these successes built upon.

We believe drug manufacturers should have to justify requests for increases by showing that increased demand is not attributable to diversion or abuse. We urge DEA to develop a concrete, data-driven methodology to account for diversion.

Holding government and responsible parties accountable and working to prevent another deluge of deadly pills into our state will help save lives and allow West Virginia to reach her full potential.

(Patrick Morrisey is the Attorney General of West Virginia.)


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