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- Following an explosive investigation by The Washington Post and “60 Minutes,” lawmakers are calling for a repeal of a law that passed through Congress with relative ease. The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act aimed to improve enforcement around prescription-drug abuse and diversion, but the investigation found that it may have made it more difficult for the agency to enforce fines against drug distributors. Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was instrumental in bringing the bill along, called the characterization of the bill and how it became law “baloney.” The repeal bill, introduced Monday, still has a ways to go before it could overturn the initial law.
The investigation found that members of Congress, alongside the pharmaceutical industry, may have helped fuel the opioid crisis.
The reports led Republican Rep. Tom Marino of Pennsylvania to withdraw his name from consideration for the president’s top drug-policy position. Marino had been key in creating a bill that became law in 2016.
The law, titled the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, aimed to improve enforcement around prescription-drug abuse and diversion. But it also raised the standard of proof that the Drug Enforcement Administration needed to crack down on a company’s pain-pill distribution, making it more difficult for the agency to enforce fines against the drug distributors.
Marino introduced the bill in 2014, after which it went through two years of back-and-forth, delays, and opposition from the DEA. But by the time the bill became law in 2016, neither the DEA nor the Justice Department objected to it. The bill passed the Senate with unanimous consent and passed without objection in the House. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law on April 19, 2016.
Despite the support for the bill at the time it passed, The Post called it “the crowning achievement of a multifaceted campaign by the drug industry to weaken aggressive DEA enforcement efforts against drug distribution companies that were supplying corrupt doctors and pharmacists who peddled narcotics to the black market.”
Marino and Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who was also instrumental in the bill, disputed the investigation’s characterization.
“These allegations are complete baloney, and we all know it,” Hatch said on Wednesday, citing the fact that the bill passed unanimously. “I don’t want to hear anyone claim they didn’t know anything about the bill.”
Marino, after commenting on his decision to withdraw his name from consideration for the drug-policy position, said he wanted to correct the record “regarding the false accusations and unfair reporting to which I have been subjected.”
“I’m proud of my work on the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act of 2016, which passed with unanimous consent in the House and Senate, unopposed by the DEA and was signed into law by President Obama,” Marino said in a statement. “This landmark legislation will help to facilitate a balanced solution for ensuring those who genuinely needed access to certain medications were able to do so, while also empowering the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to enforce the law and prevent the sale and abuse of prescription drugs.”
A possible repeal
Shortly after the investigation went up, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri introduced a bill aiming to repeal the 2016 law. When the bill originally passed through the Senate, McCaskill did not voice opposition to it.
She’s not alone in wanting the bill repealed. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the industry group that represents drugmakers, on Tuesday said it supported legislation to repeal the law. The Post reported that the group lobbied for the bill, but the group, known as PhRMA, says that is “unequivocally false.”
“We need to ensure the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has sufficient controls and authorities in place to prevent illicit diversion of controlled substances,” PhRMA CEO Stephen Ubl said in a statement. “We also urge Congress to consider whether existing criminal and civil penalties are sufficient for repeated failures of DEA registrants to ensure that they report suspicious orders for controlled substances in a timely manner.”