Health Care

McCaskill and Hawley both get tough on opioids — and one asks the other for help

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill are in a heated battle for the U.S. Senate seat held by McCaskill.
Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill are in a heated battle for the U.S. Senate seat held by McCaskill. File photos

As Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley and U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill run for the same office in one of the most hotly contested Senate races this year, they’ve also been running parallel investigations of the opioid industry’s role in Missouri’s drug abuse and overdose problem.

There’s not much daylight between the two of them on the opioid issue — both have blasted pharmaceutical companies for lax oversight of their products.

But both are also making opioids a campaign issue, and Peverill Squire, a political science professor from the University of Missouri, said politics makes it unlikely they will combine forces in their investigations, even if they’re scrutinizing the same companies on behalf of residents of the same state.

“There’s common ground,” Squire said, “and if they weren’t running for election against each other, there would probably be some coordination.”

There have been opportunities.

A recent report McCaskill’s office released about the reporting of suspicious opioid orders said two pharmaceutical companies, Teva and Allergan, had declined to answer some specific questions posed by her staff.

As a Democrat, she couldn’t issue subpoenas to compel them to answer, because Republicans are the majority party and the committee’s Republican leader wouldn’t sign on.

Hawley had launched his own investigation into the marketing practices of Teva, Allergan and eight other drug makers.

When asked recently whether she had considered asking Hawley to use his subpoena power to get the information, McCaskill said she had not but it was a worthy idea.

“I would certainly ask the attorney general to subpoena Teva and Allergan specifically for this information,” McCaskill told The Star. “That would be a great help.”

When told about McCaskill’s request, Mary Compton, a spokeswoman for Hawley’s office, said it “has already served investigative subpoenas on both companies and will continue its vigorous investigation.” But she didn’t say whether Hawley would seek the specific information McCaskill wants about the companies’ reporting of suspicious orders to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“We welcome Congress’s interest in this issue and are always happy to help educate members,” Compton said in a statement.

Working together might muddle the message as both McCaskill and Hawley try to establish themselves as the “tough-on-opioids” candidate.

McCaskill’s campaign has cut a new TV ad that blasts the pharmaceutical industry for both high prices and heroin overdoses.

Hawley’s campaign posted a video to YouTube last year of him on courthouse steps, announcing the first of his investigative suits against the opioid makers.

Squire said it’s a low-risk campaign issue for the two attorneys, similar to fighting sex trafficking.

“There’s no pro-opioid position,” Squire said. “So they can both tout their credentials.”

Opioid abuse is also a legitimate problem in Missouri, even if it’s not quite at the same level as states such as West Virginia, Ohio or New Hampshire.

Missouri ranked 14th in grams of hydrocodone and oxycodone, two common opioids, distributed per person in 2016, according to DEA data. The three largest pharmaceutical distributors shipped enough opioid pills to Missouri from 2012 to 2017 for every person in the state to have 260 doses.

That has helped drive a surge in addiction to both prescription opioids and illicit heroin, and Missouri ranked 19th in opioid overdose death rate in 2016.

Gary Henson, a Kansas City-area businessman who lost his son to a prescription drug overdose, praised the anti-opioid efforts of both McCaskill and Hawley and said there’s plenty more ground the two of them could cover.

The state doesn’t have enough beds, treatment facilities or addiction recovery specialists, he said. And Missouri remains the only state without a comprehensive prescription drug monitoring program.

“I think both what McCaskill has done and what Hawley’s done are positive, and I think they could work together, yes,” said Henson, who is on the board for a national anti-addiction nonprofit called Shatterproof. “The crisis is so large and so significant that there are many avenues to tackle.”

For now, collaboration seems unlikely.

Hawley recently tweeted a July 12 Kansas City Star story in which McCaskill criticized the DEA’s enforcement of suspicious order reporting rules, writing to McCaskill “didn’t you vote to strip the DEA of enforcement authority — and then lie about it?”

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Wait, <a href="">@clairecmc</a>, didn’t you vote to strip the DEA of enforcement authority — and then lie about it? <a href=""></a></p>&mdash; Josh Hawley (@HawleyMO) <a href="">July 12, 2018</a></blockquote> <script async src="" charset="utf-8"></script>

He then linked to a Washington Post fact-checker article about McCaskill saying she was not in Washington, D.C., when the 2016 DEA bill was up for consideration because she was receiving breast cancer treatment. Senate records showed she was present for other votes at the same time, and The Post gave McCaskill “Four Pinocchios,” its most severe rating.

McCaskill’s staff took responsibility for the error, telling the Post they had forgotten she was back in D.C. by then.

The bill in question passed the Senate as a unanimous consent vote, which means no senators raised any objections to it at the time. The Post said McCaskill has since “led the charge in repealing the law.”