This July, in U.S. Rep. Tom Marino's Northeastern Pennsylvania district, 51 people overdosed on a bad batch of heroin over the course of 48 hours.
Lycoming and Tioga Counties, where the overdoses hit, are like so many other rural communities in the country: increasingly ravaged by an opioid addiction epidemic fueled by the overprescription of pain pills. In Wellsboro, Pa. — the Tioga County seat, in the middle of the Republican congressman's district — overdose patients filled half of the 16 beds in the local emergency room.
Marino, a favorite of President Trump's and a seeming lock to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy, withdrew his name from consideration Tuesday, after the publication of an explosive report by the Washington Post and 60 Minutes about a little-noticed law passed last year that severely limits the Drug Enforcement Administration's ability to go after the drug manufacturers that supply pill mills — the driving force behind the opioid epidemic.
"We had people coming back 12 hours later, having taken the same dose," Toni Burtch, an RN at Wellsboro hospital told the Inquirer and Daily News in July. She talked about the frustration and sadness she felt during the 17-hour shift she worked that weekend, about watching people in Tioga follow the now-familiar path of opioid addiction: pills, then heroin — and, if they're lucky, recovery instead of an overdose in that tiny ER.
The law now under scrutiny — written by Marino, who received $92,500 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry over the last four years, the Post reported — was marketed as a way to ensure pain patients get their medications without interruption. But, the report found, it also makes it nearly impossible for the DEA to suspend large, suspicious shipments of opioid medications to pharmacies and doctor's offices. And as deaths from pill and heroin overdoses skyrocket — Philadelphia is on track to see 1,200 overdoses this year — the DEA has issued fewer and fewer suspension orders against drug companies.
In a statement issued Tuesday night, Marino said he withdrew his name "to remove the distraction my nomination has created."
He also defended the legislation, saying it assured that people "who genuinely needed access to certain medications were able to do so."
Also, he called the news reports false and unfair.
"The news media have left behind any concept of balanced reporting and credited conspiracy theories from individuals seeking to avert blame from their own failures to address the opioid crisis that proliferated during their tenure," Marino said in his statement.
Erick Coolidge, a Tioga County county commissioner, dairy farmer, and former hospital administrator, said Monday that his county is working hard to get addicted people into treatment — but he wishes the drug companies whose pills fueled the epidemic would pony up some money for it. "That's just this farmer's opinion," he said. "But it's a responsibility of us all, to try to understand it, and more importantly try to address it. If we don't, we'll all lose this battle."
He doesn't know too much about the Marino bill — which puts him in the same category as most of the country and, apparently, President Barack Obama, who signed the bill into law after it moved through Congress with remarkably little opposition in 2016. But, if it's as harmful as the Post's report suggests, Coolidge said, "it's unfortunate that that law was presented by the candidate that's being considered for the drug czar."
Another local lawmaker, Chester County Rep. Ryan Costello (R., Pa.), co-sponsored a version of the bill. Last April, his website touted his participation in a bipartisan task force to combat the opioid epidemic, and his most recent press release, sent last week, included his testimony that a major issue in his district was the cost of treatment for heroin addiction.
Costello noted in a statement that the legislation passed the House and Senate unanimously and was signed into law by Obama, with no opposition from the DEA. He said the legislation was intended to clarify the agency's enforcement standards and help patients get their medicine. "If the purpose of the law is now not being realized, then we need to fix it," Costello said. "I am in the process of investigating and evaluating this as we speak."
In Philadelphia on Tuesday, the CEO of one of the drug companies mentioned in the report, the Chesterbrook-based AmerisourceBergen, was doing damage control, insisting that the industry is one of the most heavily regulated in the country. The company paid West Virginia $35 million in a lawsuit last year over its opioid shipments there.
By Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers were scrambling to repeal the law, which passed by unanimous consent last year. The repeal effort in the House of Representatives was spearheaded by Langhorne Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) and Rep. Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.). Sen. Claire McCaskill (D., Mo.) had introduced a similar bill in the Senate.
"This legislation is about righting a wrong and upholding our commitment to keep our constituents safe," Fitzpatrick said in a press release.