Reporters Take Fight for Opioid Records to Court

WASHINGTON (CN) – Probing a decline in Drug Enforcement Agency enforcement actions for illegal painkiller prescriptions, the Washington Post brought a federal complaint to pry the records loose.

Filing its suit July 10 in Washington, the Post says it has been focused for years on charges that the DEA brought against Cardinal Health, America’s largest wholesale pharmaceutical distributor, and CVS, the country’s biggest pharmacy chain, for filling thousands of illegal prescriptions for highly addictive painkillers that should have been reported to the DEA.

Diversion enforcement actions, as such cases are known, come from the crime of diverting prescription drugs to the black market.

Opioids have killed nearly 180,000 Americans since 2000, and prescriptions for the painkillers have soared to 249 million in 2015, up from 112 million in 1992.

“Despite these alarming numbers, DEA diversion enforcement actions against pharmaceutical companies illicitly distributing opioids have declined,” the 8-page complaint states.

The Washington Post reported on the decline in October 2016 as part of series. Months before the article ran, however, Washington Post deputy editor David Fallis and reporter Lenny Bernstein wrote to the Justice Department for official correspondence records from 2010 to 2016, regarding the DEA’s investigations of prescription drug diversion involving Cardinal Health or CVS.

Alleging a violation of the Freedom of Information Act, the Post says the DOJ has not produced any responsive records, nor has it provided a timetable for production, “despite having identified 500 records responsive to the Post’s request nearly three months ago.”

“The agency’s delay in even searching for records in this case is all the more troubling given the DEA’s recent directive to purge e-mails older than three or four years,” the complaint states.

Department of Justice spokeswoman Nicole Navas Oxman declined to comment on the case.

The Washington Post is asking for an injunction to require the DOJ to immediately process its request and disclose responsive records.

It is represented by Charles Tobin with Ballard Spahr. The attorney has not responded to an email seeking comment.

“There is no excuse for the DOJ’s failure to comply with its FOIA obligations and its meritless delay in this case,” the complaint states.

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