There is a long and complicated chain that connects the manufacturer of opioid painkiller drugs to their retail customers. The legitimate companies that make the painkillers like oxy-contin, hydrocodone, methadone and the fentanyls pass them on to distributors, who in turn move them to retail pharmacies, responding to prescriptions written by physicians, sell the drugs to people, usually people in pain, often complicated by mental or motional distress.
Another, less legitimate link in this chain are the street dealers, who are a big, but in important ways a separate, if related, part of the problem.
The street dealers, whom everyone knows operate outside the law are the exception to this rule: that because opioid drugs are dangerous and addictive, all the links in this chain accept the responsibility to monitor their sales, so that no opioid drug transactions that are suspiciously large or persistent go unreported.
You can sum up this system of laws and law enforcement in 3 words – it doesn’t work.
Despite industry-wide promises to limit and monitor and report opioid sales, close to 200,000 people have died from overdoses since the year 2000, and in an almost unbroken upward curve since, the opioid overdose death rate has gotten worse year-by-year, with an estimate of 30,000 deaths last year.
Detailing how and why the system to control opioid drug sales is failing has been the subject of a months-long series of investigative reports by Washington Post journalists Lenny Bernstein and Scott Higham, whose terrific work was recognized recently with a George Polk Award for Medical Reporting.
Lenny Bernstein, a HERE & THERE recidivist, and Scott Higham are our guests today to talk about their latest front-page scoop that concentrates on one of the first links in this deadly chain, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of the highly addictive generic painkiller oxycodone. After 6 years of investigation, Lenny and Scott report, after billions of dollars of company profits, after hundreds of millions of little blue pills of oxycodone sold across the country, and after what one DEA investigator identified as 44,000 violations of Federal law, the DEA is about to settle with Mallinckrodt for what one of your sources called, “chump change.” To a firm like Mallinkrodt $35 million hardly qualifies as a cost of doing business, much less as a deterrent from misbehavior that kills people.
Lenny Bernstein is a medical and science reporter, Scott Higham is an investigative reporter for the Washington Post. Their continuing series of reports on the DEA’s failure to control the flood of dangerous, addictive opioid drugs being sold across the United States began in October 2016. Lenny and Scott and their associate David Fallis won the 2016 Gorge Polk Award for Medical Reporting. Scott was also a winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his work for the Post on the failures of Washington, DC’s child welfare system.