In the wake of an investigative report by The Washington Post and "60 Minutes," Rep. Peter Welch is calling for congressional investigations into the effects of legislation he co-sponsored in 2015.
The legislation, known as the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate by unanimous consent, a protocol used for legislation considered to be uncontroversial. President Barack Obama signed it into law April 19, 2016.
In a joint investigation this week, The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" reported that the legislation stripped the Drug Enforcement Agency of some of its most important powers in the effort to control and reduce opiate-related deaths.
The report quoted DEA Chief Administrative Law Judge John Mulrooney II, who wrote in a law review article that the law “imposed a dramatic diminution of the agency’s authority” and made it more difficult for officials to hold drug companies accountable when they violate federal law.
Welch, who co-sponsored the legislation, said he was “very concerned” when he read the report from The Washington Post and "60 Minutes."
On Monday, Welch wrote letters to Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and to Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., the chair of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, calling on the committees to open investigations into the law’s effects.
“This investigative report is deeply troubling and raises serious questions about whether the law is working as Congress intended,” Welch wrote.
The Washington Post report with "60 Minutes" suggests most lawmakers did not know the implications of the bill they were passing. Welch, however, was among the first of six members of Congress to cosponsor the legislation.
In an interview Wednesday, he said his involvement was based on a constituent’s request.
“We have a company – very reputable company in Vermont – Burlington Drug, that was a long-time family-owned company,” he said.
Welch said he visited Burlington Drug and “I did my due diligence with them and saw the security setup they had to make certain that they had strict inventory control, and they had a very, very definite good relationship with the DEA.”
Welch said Burlington Drug requested his help.
“And the problem that they were running into was the lack of clarity in the then-existing law as to what steps they could take in order to meet the needs of a legitimate prescription,” he said.
Welch said he co-sponsored the bill with the hopes of maintaining a delicate balance: Preventing drugs from ending up in the wrong hands without making it too difficult for patients to get properly prescribed medications.
In addition to a Vermont business asking Welch to sign on to the legislation, he said there was no substantial opposition to the legislation as lawmakers considered it.
“I mean, I certainly never had anybody raising questions to me about this,” he said. “It was something that was pending for quite some time, so there was plenty of opportunity for people who had substantive questions to raise them. But the fact that they weren’t I think is largely an indication that – at least at that time – on the information that folks in the administration had … they didn’t raise any questions that would’ve resulted in Congress taking a second look at this.”
There were some indications that the law was making the DEA’s job harder. A July 2016 report in the Los Angeles Times said explicitly that the law “makes it more difficult for government to take action against a key player in the [opiate] crisis: the pharmaceutical industry.”
Rep. Judy Chu, D–Calif., said in a letter to Gowdy and Walden this week that she noticed the Los Angeles Times story and asked the DEA’s top official about it. Then-Acting Administrator Chuck Rosenberg told Chu that there was no problem.
“[H]e assured me that [the law] did not interfere with the DEA’s ability to successfully stop bad actors,” Chu wrote this week.
According to the report by The Washington Post and "60 Minutes," the DEA’s enforcement cases and investigations were grinding to a halt even as the agency’s top official assured Congress that nothing had changed.
Welch and Chu have both called for investigations now, and Welch said he hopes the results of those investigations will help Congress craft new legislation to ensure the DEA has the legal authority to enforce federal drug laws.