WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — As a drug and alcohol counselor and the mother of two young boys, Judy Herschel never considered running for political office. That was before Congress approved legislation in 2016 that hampered the Drug Enforcement Administration’s enforcement efforts against the opioid industry.
In one month that summer, Herschel lost eight of her clients to opioid overdoses. She left her job and launched a full-time campaign against the politician she holds responsible for the legislation: its chief sponsor in the House, Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.).
“It’s a big reason why I chose to run,” Herschel, 41, said as she campaigned for the Democratic nomination last month in a neighborhood not far from Williamsport, a city once known as the Lumber Capital of the World that is reeling from an inundation of pain pills and heroin.
“We have lost way too many people to this, and this hits me hard,” Herschel said.
Marino also has a Republican challenger in Tuesday’s primary, Doug McLinko, a county commissioner who said his opponent “has sold out his office to the drug companies.”
Marino declined an interview request. He said in a statement that he sponsored the bill after receiving complaints that legitimate patients were having trouble obtaining pain medication. He said that he agrees that the final version approved by the Senate went too far. Now that the Justice Department has recommended changes to the law, Marino said, “I have been working with my colleagues to rewrite the legislation.”
Two years after Congress passed the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act and President Barack Obama signed it into law, the measure is coming back to haunt many of its sponsors and co-sponsors. The law raised the standard of proof for the DEA to immediately suspend suspicious orders of opioids. The legislation was heavily backed by the nation’s largest drug distribution firms and pharmacy chains. They poured more than a million dollars into the campaigns of key lawmakers and spent tens of millions more on lobbying efforts, financial disclosure forms and lobbying reports show.
Twenty-six lawmakers sponsored or co-sponsored versions of the legislation in the House and the Senate, 23 of them Republicans, three of them Democrats. While some are retiring, and others are not up for reelection, 15 sponsors and co-sponsors — 12 Republicans and all three Democrats — are running for reelection or seeking higher office during a volatile political cycle that defies prediction.
In nine of those races, the lawmakers’ support of the law and the money they accepted have become key campaign themes.
Jason Crow, a Democrat and U.S. Army combat veteran running for the first time, plans to use the issue against Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who accepted $44,000 in donations from drug distribution and pharmacy companies.
“I’m a parent, and I’m raising kids in a community and country that is awash in drugs,” Crow said. “If that doesn’t keep every parent up at night, then I don’t know what does. I’m done with that, and I’m not putting up with it anymore, and that’s what this election is about.”
A spokesman for Coffman said the congressman co-sponsored an earlier version of the bill, but he did not support a subsequent version because drug screening and background check provisions for employees working in the industry had been removed.
“Mike Coffman has been a pitbull targeting the pharmaceutical industry and overmedication of our veterans, and no serious person in Colorado would believe that he’s anything but an independent and tenacious advocate for what’s right,” spokesman Daniel Bucheli said.
Some of the incumbents also held stock in companies that were backing the law and contributing to their campaigns, according to a Washington Post review of financial disclosure forms. Five of the co-sponsors up for reelection this year held shares in companies such as CVS and Rite Aid while the legislation was pending.
The Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act of 2012 applied insider trading laws to members of Congress, and their holdings are publicly reported. The act does not prohibit lawmakers from owning or trading stocks in companies that come under their oversight or intersect with their legislative efforts.
“We don’t want members of Congress to be promoting legislation that only helps their portfolios and not the government or the public as a whole,” said Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group.
The Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act was the culmination of a multiyear effort by drug distribution companies and pharmacy chains to counter aggressive DEA enforcement actions. The agency had targeted the companies for failing to report suspicious orders of opioids. In some instances, the companies had been fined and warned to monitor the narcotics they shipped and dispensed or face the loss of their DEA registrations.
A former DEA lawyer hired to represent drug companies helped craft an early version of the bill that was sponsored by Marino, according to an internal email written by a Justice Department official to a colleague. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), who announced this year that he will retire, sponsored the final version of the bill in the Senate. Lawmakers said the DEA signed off on the legislation and Congress passed it with a parliamentary procedure known as unanimous consent. There was no debate and no recorded vote, and Obama signed it into law with little fanfare on April 19, 2016.
A joint investigation by The Post and “60 Minutes” in October found that the DEA had vehemently opposed the legislation and signed off on the measure only after it became clear that the bill would pass with or without the agency’s support.
In response to the ensuing furor, Marino withdrew his nomination to lead the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy as President Trump’s “drug czar.”
Candidates running against incumbents this election season are capitalizing on the fallout.
Dan Freilich is a doctor who is waging a long-shot primary battle against Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), a co-sponsor of one of the versions of the legislation.
“To find a so-called progressive Democrat co-sponsoring a bill to strip the DEA of regulatory capabilities of opioid distribution is incredible,” Freilich said.
Welch accepted $79,000 in campaign contributions from companies that backed the measure. During the years that the legislation was pending, Welch bought and sold between $215,000 and $550,000 in Rite Aid stock, disclosure reports show.
When told by The Post about his opponent’s holdings, Freilich said: “The hypocrisy is just incredible. How can he say he’s a public servant?”
Welch declined an interview request. His office issued a statement that said the congressman co-sponsored the legislation at the request of a drug distribution firm in Vermont. The statement said he was surprised by the findings of the Post/“60 Minutes” investigation and introduced legislation in March to rewrite the law after the Justice Department concluded that it should be changed.
“The Drug Enforcement Administration must have all the tools and resources it needs to combat the opioid epidemic that is ravaging communities across the country,” Welch said in the statement.
He added that he purchased the Rite Aid shares before his election.
“My personal investments, all of which are publicly disclosed, have no bearing on my work in Congress,” Welch said.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), a co-sponsor of the legislation, also held stock in one of the companies that lobbied on the measure. Sensenbrenner held between $500,000 and $1 million worth of stock in AbbVie, which manufactures Vicodin, a widely abused narcotic painkiller.
His general election challenger is using the law and the stock holdings against Sensenbrenner.
“From a big picture standpoint, this is not the direction we want to go,” said Tom Palzewicz, a Navy veteran and first-time political candidate who runs a small business consulting firm in Elm Grove, Wis., just outside of Milwaukee.
Sensenbrenner declined an interview request. His spokesman noted that Congress unanimously passed the legislation and Obama signed it into law.
“Given revelations about the law’s effect, Congressman Sensenbrenner would support its repeal,” the spokesman, Christopher Krepich, said in a statement.
Krepich added that the congressman’s holdings have nothing to do with his work.
“The ginned-up narrative that Congressman Sensenbrenner’s work on combating the opioid epidemic has ever been influenced by his privately-held stocks is completely unfounded,” he said.
Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (R-Fla.) is another co-sponsor. He held between $4,000 and $60,000 in Rite Aid stock, financial disclosures show, and accepted $77,500 from drug distribution and pharmacy companies.
Chris Hunter is a first-time candidate vying for the Democratic nomination to face Bilirakis in the fall. He is a former FBI agent and federal prosecutor who is hitting hard at Bilirakis’s support of the legislation.
“He sold out his constituents in exchange for campaign money from the prescription opioid industry that literally made it easier for them to push their pills on the street,” Hunter said.
Bilirakis declined an interview request. In a statement, he said no one had questioned the legislation until the Post/“60 Minutes” investigation. He said he has since been working on a bill to rewrite the law and plans to “push it through the legislative process as quickly as possible.”
One of the biggest backers of the bill in the Senate, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), held with his family between $95,000 and $250,000 worth of stock in CVS, which is based in Rhode Island. Former Rhode Island Supreme Court judge Bob Flanders is running for the Republican nomination to face Whitehouse and plans to attack his support of the legislation and his stock holdings.
“It’s further evidence that he’s one of these career politicians that has been bought and paid for by the special interests that are dominating Washington,” Flanders said.
Whitehouse declined an interview request. A spokesman said the senator co-sponsored the legislation because of concerns that the DEA “risked cutting off access to pain medication for patients with legitimate prescriptions.” He said Whitehouse “is open to changes in the law if needed to strike a better balance between ensuring legitimate access and preventing diversion, and is eager to find a solution that addresses any DEA and DOJ concerns.”
He added that the senator’s holdings are managed by a broker.
“The senator’s personal finances never influence his legislative work and any suggestion otherwise is ridiculous,” the spokesman said.
In the House, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) was one of the staunchest backers of the legislation. She accepted more than $92,000 in contributions from opioid-related companies. Blackburn is now running for the seat vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Bob Corker.
Her opponent in the general election is Phil Bredesen, a former mayor of Nashville and former governor of Tennessee. Bredesen has not raised Blackburn’s cosponsorship, allowing the Democratic Party to attack the congresswoman. The party has called on Blackburn to return the contributions and launched a website that calls Blackburn “BigPharma Marsha.”
Blackburn, who declined an interview request, said in a statement that it was “absolutely absurd” to suggest that contributions played a role in her cosponsorship.
“The House and Senate — Republicans and Democrats — President Obama — all thought they had struck the appropriate balance between enforcement and access when the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act was signed into law in April 2016,” she said. “Congress does not always get it right, and if there are unintended consequences, we will fix them.”
Thebault was a fellow at the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University and will be a summer intern for The Post.FacebookTwitterGoogle +