Hassan pushes for drug enforcement spending, holding pharma companies accountable

  • U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan delivers remarks during the Veterans Day ceremony at the New Hampshire State Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2017. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file

For the Monitor
Tuesday, December 19, 2017

In the battle against the drug crisis that’s ravaging New Hampshire, U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan says large pharmaceutical companies that fail to police suspicious orders of opioids must be held accountable.

And in an interview with the Monitor on Monday, New Hampshire’s junior U.S. senator and former governor said she’s urging her Republican Senate counterparts to increase federal funding in a year-end bill.

“We need to get more money and resources to the front lines as soon as possible,” Hassan said.

“I’m calling on my colleagues in the Republican majority who are putting together this end-of-the-year spending bill to include much more funding for the opioid epidemic on all fronts,” Hassan said. “We need to get money to the people on the front lines: law enforcement, treatment, prevention and recovery providers as well.”

Hassan and fellow Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen joined a handful of colleagues last week in calling for a significant increase in funding. A year-end funding bill needs to be negotiated by Friday in order to prevent a federal government shutdown.

“We hear concerns from our colleagues on the other side of the aisle because they say they’re concerned about the opioid epidemic. What we need is to match that concern with is actual dollars,” Hassan said when asked if there’s support among Senate Republicans for the increased funding.

“I’m going to be making the case that if people are really concerned with this epidemic, which is hitting every state in the country and taking about 100 lives a day, that we will find resources to actually get to the front lines, so we can turn the tide of this thing,” Hassan added.

Earlier this year Shaheen and Hassan teamed up to co-sponsor a bill that called for $45 billion to fight the epidemic over the next 10 years.

While the clock’s ticking on a deal to keep the federal government funded past this Friday, Hassan is grabbing national media exposure for her push to hold pharmaceutical makers accountable when they run afoul of federal drug laws and to give law enforcement officials the tools they need to crack down on the reckless distribution of opioids.

Hassan is part of a group of senators aiming to repeal the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016. The legislation, backed by powerful drug companies, was pushed through Congress by small group of lawmakers. It was signed into law by President Barack Obama.

A joint investigation by the Washington Post and 60 Minutes found that the law has undermined the federal Drug Enforcement Agency’s most powerful tools in the war against the opioid epidemic. Some of the DEA’s investigators, agents and attorneys were interviewed as part of the investigation.

“It’s going to be absolutely critical that we get the DEA its authority back, the authority that was weakened by last year’s law,” Hassan said. “What I am focused on right now is making sure that our law enforcement on the front lines has the resources they need, not only financial resources, but the legal tools, to really crack down on the distribution of opioids in our country, which are killing so many people.”

The bill was passed by unanimous consent in the Senate and without objection in the U.S. House, which means lawmakers didn’t have to take an actual vote on the legislation.

While Hassan wasn’t in the U.S. Senate at the time the bill was passed, Shaheen was in office. A spokesman for Shaheen said she opposes the 2016 law and supports the push by Hassan and others to repeal the measure.

The Post-60 Minutes report also spotlighted a multiyear investigation by a DEA team into whether pharmaceutical giant McKesson failed to report suspicious orders of addictive opioid pain pills by pharmacies that were then turning around those drugs for illegal sales.

“This is the best case we’ve ever had against a major distributor in the history of the (DEA),” the special agent in charge of the DEA team told the Post.

While some at the DEA pushed for criminal charges and large fines against McKesson, top attorneys at the agency and the Justice Department reportedly struck a deal with the company, which Hassan said deflated many at the DEA.

“The McKesson Company is the largest distributor of opioids in the country,” she said. “And what we’re hearing from the DEA is their intense frustration that even when they’ve had really good cases to bring against companies like McKesson for ignoring flags that tell them they are sending opioids to pill mills or unscrupulous doctors or people who are essential dealing in these pills, that they couldn’t use their authority to really crack down on companies like McKesson.”

Hassan also stressed the importance of “meaningful fines.”

“McKesson makes $5 billion a year in profits, $100 million a week, and yet the fine they settled for was $150 million. That’s a drop in the bucket for them,” the senator said. “So we have to hold them accountable. That means imposing fines that will really cause them to change their behavior and their culture, because right now it’s very clear that they are structurally and culturally unable to police themselves.”

McKesson fired back Sunday night, soon after the airing of the 60 Minutes report, which included an interview with Hassan.

The pharmaceutical giant said the report contained “sweeping and unsubstantiated accusations against our company. We provided extensive information to the news outlet by way of interviews with and statements from McKesson and its representatives – including a categorical denial of any criminal behavior or intent. Shockingly, it all ended up on the editing room floor.”

The drug crisis has hit the Granite State particularly hard. New Hampshire ranks second in the country, behind West Virginia, in the number of opioid-related deaths per capita. And the Granite State ranks first in the nation for fentanyl-related deaths relative to its population.

“What we know is that there are millions of opioid pills going to small states,” Hassan said. “And we know that most people who have an addiction right now started on prescription drugs. So we need to crack down on this and I’m going to continue to do that.”