SAN LUIS VALLEY — A 60 Minutes episode that aired on CBS Sunday fingered the country’s largest drug distributor, headquartered in San Francisco, Calif. as literally getting away with murder in saturating the San Luis Valley with opioids.
McKesson Corporation raked in billions distributing addictive opioids over the years, the segment’s producers noted. But the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was unable to prosecute the company despite the growing opioid epidemic because with the Department of Justice and Congress cut a backdoor deal with McKesson in 2014.
Rather than fine the company a billion dollars, revoke their license to distribute products and jail their chief executive, which DEA agents had hoped to do, agents were forced to settle the case with a $150 million fine, for a company that reportedly makes $100 million a week. One New Hampshire senator who criticized Congress for the settlement told CBS the pharmaceutical companies are doing all they can to keep the epidemic going.
According to the report: “DEA investigators discovered McKesson was shipping the same quantities of opioid pills to small-town pharmacies in Colorado's San Luis Valley as it would typically ship to large drugstores next to big city medical centers.” Twenty-nine year DEA veteran Helen Kaupang, now retired, commented: “McKesson [was] supplying enough pills to that community to give every man, woman and child a monthly dose of 30 to 60 tablets…I found it shocking.”
And that was only one of many other suspicious orders the company was engaged in. They also were fined for supplying drugs to shady Internet drug companies and even organizations with criminal connections.
In 2014, San Luis Valley-area healthcare providers began limiting how opioid drugs are prescribed. As often happens, that decision resulted in the recourse of prescription drug abusers to heroin, also an opiate.
In February, a Durango Herald article quoted a Colorado Hospital Association, study evaluating five years of medical codes from birth records at its 100 hospitals statewide. According to the data, the number of newborns experiencing opioid-related withdrawal symptoms increased nearly two and a half times between 2011 and 2015.
At one point, Valley hospitals estimated that three out of every five infants evidenced opiate addiction at birth.
Information developed by the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) shows that from 2005 to 2009 there were 20 opiate-related overdose deaths in the San Luis Valley and from 2009 to 2013 that rate jumped to 40 opiate related deaths Valley-wide. This is a 100 percent increase in the deaths due to opiate overdoses in a four-year period (CDPHE, 2014).
The San Luis Valley was one of only 15 rural communities nationwide to receive a $100,000 grant in 2015 from HRSA to fund Naloxone education. Naloxone is an opiate antagonist delivered by injection that reverses an opiate related overdose.
Dr. Jack Westfall of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and director of the High Plains Research Network also is leading a team that received a $3 million federal grant last summer. Westfall’s team will encourage more doctors and nurses in the San Luis Valley and Eastern Plains to get the training and certification needed to prescribe buprenorphine, among other goals, a methadone-like drug which helps those wishing to recover from heroin addiction.
Consequences of the opioid flood
Earlier this year, an article written for the Valley Courier by Ruth Heide said in part:
“After conducting an investigation that revealed thousands of controlled substance prescriptions written within a year’s time — including prescriptions for the “holy trinity” of drugs — and the deaths of three patients related to drug intoxication, on March 8 the State Board of Nursing under Program Director Sam Delp issued a summary suspension of the professional nursing license of Alamosa nurse practitioner Debra Rice, R.N., A.P.N., R.X.N., practicing at SoCo Medical Services in Alamosa.
“Rice had been licensed and granted prescriptive authority since 2008.
“As part of her practice, Rice wrote prescriptions for controlled substances including narcotic pain medications, benzodiazepines, and muscle relaxers. According to the State Board of Nursing between January 1 and May 23 of 2016 Rice wrote more than 2,400 prescriptions for controlled substances, including oxycodone/acetaminophen, Diazepam, Methadone, Oxycodone (10 mg, 16 mg and 20 mg) and Tramadol.
“From January 1, 2016 through February 25, 2017, Rice wrote more than 7,000 prescriptions for controlled substances including Oxycodone/Acetaminophen, diazepam, methadone, oxycodone (10 mg, 15 mg and 20 mg), morphine and tramadol, according to the state board. Three of Rice’s patients died from drug combinations or overdoses while in her care.
“Based upon the information obtained in the board's investigation, objective and reasonable grounds exist to believe, and the board so finds, that respondent [Rice] is guilty of deliberate and willful violation of Article 88, Title 12, C.R.S., (Nurse Practice Act) and/or the public health, safety, or welfare imperatively requires emergency action.” https://alamosanews.com/article/chronic-pain-fatal-practice
Was McKesson complicit in the deaths of Rice’s patients? The deaths mentioned above happened after McKesson’s settlement with the DEA and the DOJ. But certainly the deaths of those prior to 2014 could possibly have been linked to McKesson products. As one DEA agent told CBS: “They’re killing people…And it is all for financial gain.”