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Welch Wants to Revisit Criticized Drug Law

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/20/2017 12:05:17 AM
Modified: 10/20/2017 4:03:34 PM

West Lebanon — Congressman Peter Welch is calling for an investigation into legislation he sponsored last year after reports the law prevents federal officials from targeting suspicious narcotics shipments from pharmaceutical companies.

Welch, D-Vt., said on Thursday he supported the bill thinking it would clarify federal drug regulations and foster better relationships between small pharmaceutical companies and the Drug Enforcement Administration. But as the legislation has drawn scrutiny, he’s questioned how the bill managed to pass both chambers of Congress with no vocal opposition.

“This is the head-scratcher,” Welch said in an interview. “It passed unanimously on a bipartisan basis. It was reviewed by the DEA and the DEA helped write the legislation. It was supported by the Obama Justice Department and signed by President Obama himself, and was negotiated largely in the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

An investigation by the Washington Post and 60 Minutes published this week found that drug companies lobbied heavily for the bill, contributing at least $1.5 million to the 23 lawmakers who co-sponsored it.

Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., who spearheaded the effort, withdrew his name from consideration as America’s drug czar on Tuesday in the wake of the report.

On the same day, Welch sent letters to the chairmen of the two House committees to ask them to conduct open hearings on the issue.

“I want to know (the DEA’s) view of whether in fact this law has impeded their efforts,” Welch said. “I welcome bringing in the whistleblowers as well so that they would have an opportunity to explain why they believe it hampered those investigatory efforts.”

 Welch attached his name to the legislation in 2015 at the behest of the Burlington Drug Co., a Milton, Vt.-based firm he described as a “100-year-old family business” that distributes prescription medication throughout New England.

At the time, he said, the company was having difficulty making deliveries to pharmacies because of “ambiguities” in DEA regulations.

“They had a 100 percent total compliance record with the DEA, never had any kind of violations,” Welch said.

Attempts to reach Margaret Glazier, the owner of Burlington Drug Co. at the time, were unsuccessful on Thursday.

The company has since been sold to J M Smith Corp., a South Carolina pharmaceutical company that bills itself as the “third largest privately owned company” in that state.

“Burlington Drug Company recognizes that illegal drug use is a problem in our country, and continues to take stringent measures to ensure that our products are sold only to pharmacies licensed and registered by the DEA and the state to fill prescriptions written by physicians and providers who are both licensed and DEA registered,” the company said in a written statement on Thursday.

Welch said he both visited Burlington Drug and consulted law enforcement before the legislation passed, adding he performed “serious due diligence on this.”

“There was no pushback or objections from the DEA,” he said, adding the agency at the time told legislators it had no issues with the bill.

In its report, the Washington Post quotes DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge John J. Mulrooney II saying that “at a time when, by all accounts, opioid abuse, addiction and deaths were increasing markedly” the new law “imposed a dramatic diminution of the agency’s authority.”

Mulrooney’s comments were made available to the Post as part of a draft article from the Marquette Law Review.

Pharmaceutical companies have argued the law doesn’t hamper law enforcement from doing their jobs.

Welch has received $89,204 in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry since 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

By comparison, Rep. Annie Kuster, D-N.H., received $79,319 over the same period.

Of the Twin States’ Senate delegation, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has received the least in industry contributions ($1,785) since 2013, according to the center. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., took in $116,776 and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., received $86,960.

Since 2013, Sen. Maggie Hassan has received $64,383 from the industry.

Welch said that contributions haven’t influenced his vote, and referred to himself as an adversary of pharmaceutical companies’ pricing and prescribing guidelines.

“I also appreciate the one thing that the pharma industry does do, and it does create life-extending and pain-relieving drugs,” he said.

Leahy said on Thursday that industry contributions did not influence his support for the legislation. The industry has often combated legislation the senator has sponsored on trademark and generic drug reform, he said.

“I’ve never had any lobbying on this vote,” he said.

The end result of the legislation wasn’t what was promised to legislators, Leahy said, adding he’s now seeing bipartisan support for repeal.

Hassan filed a bill to repeal the law this week and Kuster introduced a companion bill on Thursday.

“The DEA needs to have every tool at its disposal and that includes being able to suspend or restrict shipments that are suspicious,” Hassan said on Thursday.

The DEA didn’t bring forth any concerns about the bill when she was governor, Hassan said, but that shouldn’t stop officials from acting now.

“We are going to have to do more work to ensure that the industry is partnering with us to address this epidemic rather than continuing to exacerbate the epidemic,” she said.

Kuster, co-chairwoman of the Bipartisan Heroin Task Force, was unavailable for an interview on Thursday. She said in a statement that as states combat the opioid epidemic, “it’s critical that no tools are taken off the table.”

Welch said he would be open to the House repeal bill because it would likely draw hearings and an open discussion.

He’d also be open to amending the law.

“Anything that we can do to address opioid abuse, we should do,” Welch said. “We also want to make certain that doctors that properly prescribe pain relief medication to like a cancer patient is able to get access to that prescription that is going to alleviate their suffering.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

Correction

Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., has received $64,383 from the pharmaceutical industry since 2013. An earlier version of this article inaccurately reported the period when those contributions were made. 




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