WASHINGTON – Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a key player in the passage of a federal law that critics say has made it more difficult to restrain the deadly opioid epidemic, insists she has seen no evidence to back up those accusations.
In an interview with USA TODAY, the Tennessee Republican defiantly defended her role in the 2016 legislation, which critics charge has led to a rise in opioid deaths across the country.
Blackburn, who is running next year for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Bob Corker, said Thursday her involvement in the law grew out of a sincere effort to make sure that people who have a legitimate need for prescription drugs are able to get them while at the same time cracking down on illicit opioid use.
President Trump has declared the opioid crisis in America a 'public health emergency.' USA TODAY
With just a few words, the legislation that Blackburn co-sponsored and helped push through Congress changed the standard that the Drug Enforcement Administration used to immediately block suspicious shipments of massive amounts of opioids.
A joint investigation published two weeks ago by "60 Minutes" and The Washington Post asserted that the new language robbed the DEA of an important tool that helped keep addictive painkillers out of the hands of those who sell and use them illegally.
Blackburn, however, said it is impossible to know the law’s true impact because the DEA hasn’t submitted a report to Congress on that subject. The report, which is mandated under the law, was due last April.
“We cannot say that was the result because they will not give us the report,” Blackburn said.
Regardless, if the accusations in the 60 Minutes/Washington Post investigation are backed up by data from the DEA, Blackburn said she would help lead the effort to revise the law.
“If there are unintended consequences, we will fix it,” she said.
Blackburn was not the author of the bill, which was supported by the drug industry and is known as the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.
Its main advocate was Rep. Tom Marino, a Pennsylvania Republican whom President Donald Trump nominated in September to become the nation’s drug czar. Marino withdrew his name from consideration last week after the news reports raised questions about the impact of the law.
Blackburn co-sponsored the legislation and at one point even led the debate on the House floor. Her role is under scrutiny because she was pushing the bill at the same time that opioid abuse was sharply on the rise in Tennessee.
More than 4,300 Tennesseans have died of opioid overdoses since 2014, the year the proposed law in question was first introduced in Congress, making the state one of the hardest-hit by the epidemic. Figures for 2017 are not yet available.
► More: Rep. Marsha Blackburn: Drug law had 'unintended consequences,' should be revisited 'immediately'
What’s more, Blackburn has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the prescription drug industry. A USA TODAY review of campaign finance reports shows that, since 2012, she has collected at least $96,000 in campaign contributions from political-action committees affiliated with the largest manufacturers and distributors of opioids and from groups representing drug makers and distributors.
Blackburn bristles at the suggestion that those donations fueled her interest in the law.
“You know what, that is absolutely absurd,” she said.
Asked if she intended to return the donations, Blackburn replied: “That is absurd.”
Blackburn said she has worked to fight against drug abuse since her days in the Tennessee state Senate, when she supported forming drug courts and treatment programs.
Her concerns about the rising opioid epidemic go back years, she said, pointing to a letter she and then-Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif., wrote to the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services in 2012 asking what the government was doing to fight the problem.
In the interview, Blackburn said she decided to take action after hearing from veterans’ groups and others in her congressional district that people who had a legitimate medical need for prescription drugs were unable to get them because of DEA restrictions intended to halt the shipment of drugs for illicit use.
In 2014, she signed onto legislation that she hoped would bring clarity to federal law and provide a more balanced approach to fighting the problem.
Up to that point, the DEA had been able to freeze the shipment of drugs that it deemed posed an “imminent danger” to the community. The new law, which sailed through Congress with no opposition and was signed by then-President Barack Obama, changed that standard by requiring the DEA to show “a substantial likelihood of an immediate threat” of death, serious bodily harm or drug abuse before it could stop a shipment of drugs.
Critics, including Joe Rannazzisi, who ran the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control and was featured in the 60 Minutes/Washington Post investigation, say it is difficult to prove there is an “immediate threat” standard, leaving the agency unable to stop drug distributors from sending millions of opioids to doctors and pharmacies who law enforcement thought were feeding to people with addictions.
Blackburn, however, insists Congress was right to act.
“I think absolutely that we did the right thing in working in a bipartisan manner, working with the DEA, working with the DOJ, solving problems that existed, making certain that those that have a legitimate need got what they needed and, if there were illicit uses or vendors or physicians or pill mills, that they were going to go after them and shut them down fast,” she said.
Furthermore, “the final language of this bill was suggested by the DEA, approved by the DOJ, and signed by the president of the United States,” she said.
Responding to the allegations that the law impeded efforts to stop illicit drug use, Blackburn points to government figures showing the number of narcotics shipments halted by federal investigators already was on the decline years before the law took effect. Immediate suspension orders of drug shipments plummeted from 65 in 2011 to five in 2015, and then rose slightly to eight in 2016, according to data the DEA provided to a congressional committee.
“They are saying this (law) caused the problem,” she said. But based on the DEA’s own data, “it is not appropriate to say that what we did” was to blame, she said.
DEA officials told "60 Minutes" that even before the law was changed, distributors were successful in pressuring agency leaders, who in turn made it more difficult to win approval for suspensions.
Blackburn noted that the agency has not asked for any changes to the law, even though the Justice Department says it is considering seeking a repeal of the statute.
At a congressional hearing Wednesday, Blackburn asked a top DEA administrator and officials from other federal agencies if any existing statutes prevent them from effectively responding to the opioid crisis.
Neil Doherty, deputy assistant administrator of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, said the agency will work with Congress to make sure it has the most up-to-date tools to fight opioid addiction, but he offered no specific suggestions on what is needed.
“If they do come back and submit something that’s a change, then of course we’re doing to do it immediately,” Blackburn said, although she indicated she was not inclined to repeal the law.
“What we are trying to do is clean up the issue, and that requires getting the information and the data from the DEA,” she said.
“Until they report to us on the effect that this law has had on their agency, I cannot guess at what they are going to say,” Blackburn said. “We have to have the data. …This issue is too important for guesswork.”