In a scene bringing back images of Big Tobacco CEOs taking the oath, the chair of Dublin-based drug distributor Cardinal Health appeared before a U.S. House subcommittee on Tuesday to apologize for how the company sent millions of pain pills into parts of West Virginia.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish we had moved faster and asked a different set of questions. I’m deeply sorry that we did not,” George Barrett said.
But when repeatedly asked if Cardinal’s actions contributed to the opioid epidemic, Barrett told a member of the subcommittee, “No sir, I do not believe that we contributed to the opioid crisis.”
The responses by drug executives ranged from apologies to explanations to finger-pointing at the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for not doing enough in its role as overseer of sales of legally controlled substances.
Barrett joined the leaders of four other drug companies who testified on Tuesday. Asked directly whether their firm's actions contributed to the country's opioid epidemic, four of them answered "no" while just one — Joseph Mastandrea, chairman of the board of Springboro-based Miami-Luken Inc. — said "yes."
The hearing came during an election-year push by Congress to pass legislation aimed at curbing a growing epidemic. Nearly 64,000 people died last year from drug overdoses, with two-thirds of those deaths involving opioids.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee began investigating the distribution of prescription opioids last May. The panel has said distributors sent more than 780 million pills of hydrocodone and oxycodone — prescription pain-killers that have caused many overdose deaths — to West Virginia from 2007 to 2012. That's an average of more than 400 pills per person over that period in the state, where around 1.8 million people live.
Investigators said 20.8 million opioid pills were shipped from 2006 to 2016 to Williamson, which has a population of 2,900. One pharmacy in Kermit, with around 400 residents, ranked 22nd in the U.S. in the number of hydrocodone pills it received in 2006, according to the investigation.
Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., who chairs the committee's investigations panel, said he wanted to know "why did the distributors repeatedly fail to report suspicious orders" of prescription opioids. He added that in some cases in West Virginia, "the volume of controlled substances a distributor sends on its own should be cause for concern."
Barrett pushed back against the subcommittee, saying an area’s population compared to the pills it gets don’t always line up.
“We often know that there’s a small population in a town which serves a large service area that may have a medical center or a cancer institute in the nearby area,” Barrett said.
Cardinal Health now faces more than 300 lawsuits from local and state governments over how it distributed pain pills to local pharmacies.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this story