McCaskill Requests Investigation into Opioid Distributor Enforcement

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, today requested that the Department of Justice conduct an internal investigation into the ability of the Drug Enforcement Agency to hold major drug distributors accountable for opioid diversionas new data indicates that more Americans die annually from opioid abuse than gun violence.

In her letter to Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz, McCaskill raised concerns that the fines recently levied against opioid distributors for major infractions were inadequate given the scale of the opioid problem within the United States and the severity of the infractions. McCaskill also questioned whether changes to DEA standards and pressure from senior officials have undermined enforcement efforts. 

“Opioid deaths are a national epidemic in our country—people are more likely to die from an opioid related death than from gun violence,” McCaskill said. “We have situations where we’ve discovered that millions of opioid doses were being delivered by distributors in illegal and suspicious circumstances, and the government’s response was either too little or too late. This is a matter of life and death and I want to know whether or not we could have done more.”  

Distributors purchase prescription medications and other medical products from manufacturers and then distribute them to pharmacies, hospitals, and other entities around the country.  Distributors have a legal obligation to prevent the diversion of prescription drugs, including opioids, for illegal purposes, and they can play an important role in monitoring the volume and nature of drug shipments to detect “pill mill” schemes.?

According to the Washington Post, at least 13 opioid distributors, including three companies that control 85% of all U.S. pharmaceutical distribution, ignored warnings of opioid diversion “[e]ven when they were alerted to suspicious pain clinics or pharmacies by the [Drug Enforcement Agency] and their own employees.” In response to those lapses, the Drug Enforcement Agency has recently concluded settlements with major opioid distributors, including McKesson and Cardinal Health. However, these enforcement actions came only after several distributors repeatedly violated diversion laws and filled thousands of suspicious orders from Internet pharmacies.   

“Recent actions against distributors have also occurred against a backdrop of significant enforcement challenges at DEA.  The Washington Post, for example, has reported that ‘beginning in 2013, some officials at DEA headquarters began to block and delay enforcement actions against wholesale drug distributors and others, frustrating investigators in the field,’” McCaskill wrote. “Given these serious concerns, I request that you investigate whether changes to legal standards for DEA enforcement actions and alleged interference from current and former senior DOJ and DEA officials have hampered efforts to hold distributors accountable for their lack of diversion oversight.”

A copy of McCaskill’s letter is available online HERE.