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A West Virginia lawmaker unleashed his fury Tuesday on five Big Pharma executives appearing before Congress when they would not take responsibility for the deadly opioid crisis that has ravaged his state.
"I just want you to feel shame about your roles, respectively, in all of this," Rep. David McKinley, a Republican, told the gathering. "I am so frustrated for the people of West Virginia and across this country that you all have not ... stepped up and took more responsibility for this."
McKinley, who is not on the subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee holding the hearing but was invited to sit in because his state has the highest drug overdose rate in the nation, began seething not long after lawmakers started questioning the executives about their role in the opioid epidemic. Last year, 909 people died of opioid overdoses in West Virginia, and opioids figured in two-thirds of the 63,632 fatal overdoses reported nationwide in 2016.
George Barrett, executive chairman of drug distributor Cardinal Health, apologized on behalf of his company for not doing more to stop the shipment of millions of prescription painkillers to West Virginia and other Rust Belt states.
But Barrett also answered “no” when asked point-blank whether his company’s actions had contributed to the opioid crisis. Just one of the executives who testified before the committee answered yes to that question: Dr. Joseph Mastandrea, chairman of the pharmaceutical company Miami-Luken.
Instead, Barrett and the other drug company executives said they now have systems in place to prevent millions of painkiller pills from being shipped to small West Virginia cities.
Willamson, for example, which has a population of 3,191 residents and two pharmacies, received 6,500 pills per person over a decade.
“With the benefit of hindsight, I wish we had moved faster and asked a different set of questions,” Barrett said. “I am deeply sorry we did not. Today, I am confident we would reach different conclusions about these two pharmacies.”
The executives did not detail the systems that would prevent something similar from happening in the future.
McKinley, who spoke toward the end of hearing, said he was angered by what he had heard.
"What's the accountability?" he asked. "What's the punishment that fits this crime, when 900 people in West Virginia lose their lives? ... Just a slap on the wrist? A financial penalty?"
McKinley questioned some of the executives on this directly, including John Hammergren, CEO of the pharmaceutical distributor McKesson Corp.
“Do you regret any role that your company played in this crisis?” he asked Hammergren.
“I feel terrible about the crisis,” Hammergren replied.
Executives from the drug wholesalers AmerisourceBergen and H.D. Smith also were questioned. They did not answer some of the questions directly, like whether they fired employees who failed to notice that millions of pills were being shipped to drug stores dispensing enormous amounts of painkillers.
“Don’t you take responsibility for what was happening back then?” Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla., asked Hammergren.
“We take all of these matters seriously,” Hammergren replied.
A clearly unhappy Castor later entered into the record the salaries of the executives appearing before the committee.
Hammergren's base salary last year was $1,680,000, according to McKesson's 2017 stockholder report.
But not all the lawmakers took a hard line with the executives.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, praised Steven Collis, CEO of AmerisourceBergen, for putting off back surgery to show up for the hearing. He also joked about having Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, who is a doctor, prescribe Collis “an opioid if you don’t make it through the hearing.”
After the hearing, the national trade association representing McKesson, AmerisourceBergen and Cardinal Health released a statement saying that the opioid epidemic "was not caused by distributors who neither, prescribe, manufacture nor dispense medicines."
"This crisis was caused by decades of belief that opioids could be prescribed with little risk," Healthcare Distribution Alliance President John M. Gray said in a statement. "Distributors have invested heavily in more sophisticated monitoring tools, and we support aggressive policy measures to reduce over-prescribing of opioids. Today, we are focused on what we can do to advance meaningful policy changes that will prevent opioid abuse and misuse before it occurs."
CORRECTION (May 8, 2018, 4:30 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the committee membership of Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. He is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, but not the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee (which invited him to a hearing Tuesday because of his state's high drug overdose rate).