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Watchdog finds DEA was 'slow to respond' to opioid epidemic

WASHINGTON — The Drug Enforcement Administration was “slow to respond” as America grappled with a rising opioid epidemic, the Justice Department’s inspector general said in a report Tuesday that faulted the agency for cutting back use of a key enforcement tool and continuing to raise production quotas even as the number of deaths rose.

“Unlike past drug crises, in combating the current opioid epidemic DEA failed to develop a comprehensive national strategy that could have focused and directed its regulatory and enforcement efforts,” the watchdog report found.

Some of the findings could bolster the claims of drugmakers and distributors who have said the government should share the blame for the crisis. The first federal trial on the crisis, dealing with claims against the drug industry from two Ohio counties, is scheduled to begin later this month in Cleveland.

Opioids, a class of drugs that includes powerful prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin and illegal drugs including heroin and illicitly made fentanyl, have been linked to more than 400,000 deaths in the U.S. since 2000.

The report examined the DEA’s regulatory and enforcement efforts to control opioids since the crisis began to come into focus. It found that as the number of opioid-related deaths drastically increased between 2013 and 2017, the DEA significantly reduced using one of its key enforcement tools — the ability to suspend manufacturers, distributors and other registrants to keep drugs from being diverted.

The report found the agency issued a peak of 59 of those “immediate suspension orders” in fiscal year 2011. But then the number started dropping, all the way down to five in fiscal 2015. The report said part of the reason for the decline was that so many pill mills had already been shut down. But part of it was an icy relationship between different offices in the agency.

In a response included with the report, the DEA said the decline in those suspensions was also due to a decrease in opioid prescriptions and an increase in prescribers, pharmacists and others surrendering their registrations.

The report also found the DEA raised the annual quota of the amount of oxycodone that can be manufactured by nearly 400 percent from 2002 to 2013. In court filings, drugmakers have said that they continued to increase production as the opioid crisis deepened because the DEA said they should.

The report notes the agency had told the U.S. Government Accountability Office previously that it’s difficult to set a limit that provides for legitimate medical needs and limits abuse and diversion. Since 2014, the oxycodone quota has been reduced, with the biggest cuts — of 25 percent — announced in 2016. The cuts have come as prescriptions have declined and fentanyl and other synthetic street drugs have become the biggest killers among opioids.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, sued in 2017 to try to force quotas down and resolved the suit last year. “Unfortunately, this mismanagement contributed to the senseless death of many Americans,” Morrisey said in a statement.

In the report, weaknesses were identified in the DEA’s registration process, which allowed manufacturers, distributors and health care providers to immediately reapply after their registration was revoked or surrendered.

The inspector general also called for the federal government to do something some states have done already: require electronic rather than handwritten prescriptions for all controlled substances, saying that’s a way to cut down on fraud. The DEA agreed with that and most of the report’s recommendations.

In a statement, the DEA noted that it has taken steps to reduce the diversion of prescription drugs to the black market, but the agency also agreed that more changes need to be made.


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Parents remain adamant calling for new Huntington East field

HUNTINGTON — With ground cleared for a new outdoor activity area at Huntington East Middle School — the result of public complaints voiced in August — parents are continuing the push for a full-size playing field.

Those voices returned before the Cabell County Board of Education on Tuesday night with concerns that the less-than-1-acre field does not meet the school’s need for practical outdoor space and a spot for the school’s football team to practice, let alone host home games.

Heather James, a parent-partner at Huntington East, said the school felt slighted compared to others in the county — alluding to the ongoing construction of a new $1.3 million football complex at Milton Middle School, approved this summer.

By contrast, Huntington East’s football team practices on the former Beverly Hills home field off Arlington Avenue, about a mile from the school’s Norway Avenue location. Players are bused from school each afternoon about 20 minutes to the field, which has no locker room and a few portable toilets. Both Huntington East and Huntington Middle play their Thursday night home games at Huntington High School.

Parents contend a future field was part of the long-term plan when the school was built more than 10 years ago, and have repeated that students have no outside space for recess or recreation.

Ryan Saxe, superintendent for Cabell County Schools, answered that there were neither plans nor room for a nearby football field when the original plans for the school were formed several years before his administration began in 2017. Saxe added his staff was not aware of any desire for a field at Huntington East until public comment began in August following the approval of Milton’s field.

Milton Middle has faced its own logistical issues for decades — a major reason behind building their new field. Until the complex is ready for football at the start of the 2020 season, players must be bused about a half-mile from the school to their practice field at the former middle school on Main Street. For games, players must cross U.S. 60 and walk about six blocks to play at the former Milton High School field.

Milton’s situation also differs in that its construction was funded through the bond levy, Saxe noted, while both Huntington middle schools were built using general funds.

The current outdoor area being built at Huntington East, which was cleared a few weeks ago, will be seeded, tilled for rock, fenced and given walkable access in the coming weeks, said Kim Cooper, assistant superintendent for operations.

But the field is not a substitute for a potential football field for the school, Saxe said, adding in the same breath that projects of that size often take years of planning and public consideration.

Several ideas for a Huntington East field have been mulled, including the possibility of significant improvements to the existing Beverly Hills field, which the school district owns.

Saxe and the board both have expressed their desire to create at least a practice field for Huntington East and Huntington Middle, should a solution be found.

Another secondary point of concern was a lack of funding for the school’s athletic boosters, particularly in their ability to provide uniforms for the Title I schools. Two students, Samara Cooper, a cheerleader, and Kasey Thomas, a cross-country runner, both said uniforms are often far too big for female athletes, and that the cross-country team must also share uniforms between the boys and girls teams.

Amanda Kinder, a HEMS parent, added that when the school plays its home games at Huntington High, the high school boosters receive all funds from the concession stand, rather than the middle school.

No comment was made from the board on the uniform or booster situations.


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Pompeo accuses Democrats of bullying in impeachment probe

WASHINGTON — Setting a defiant tone, the Trump administration resisted Congress’ access to impeachment witnesses Tuesday, even as House Democrats warned such efforts themselves could amount to an impeachable offense.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to delay five current and former officials from providing documents and testimony in the impeachment inquiry that could lead to charges against President Donald Trump. But Democrats were able to set closed-door depositions for Thursday for former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and next week for ousted U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch.

The escalating exchange of accusations and warnings signaled yet another stiffening in the confrontation between the executive and legislative branches amid the Democrats’ launching of the impeachment inquiry late last week. That followed a national security whistleblower’s disclosure of Trump’s July phone call seeking help from the new Ukrainian president in investigating Democratic political rival Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter.

In a Tuesday evening tweet, Trump cast the impeachment inquiry as a coup “intended to take away the Power of the People, their VOTE, their Freedoms, their Second Amendment, Religion, Military, Border Wall, and their God-given rights as a Citizen of The United States of America!”

Pompeo said the Democrats were trying to “intimidate” and “bully” the career officials into appearing and claimed it would be “not feasible” as demanded. House investigators countered that it would be illegal for the secretary to try to protect Trump by preventing the officials from talking to Congress.

Some Trump supporters cheered Pompeo’s muscular response to the Democrats. But it also complicated the secretary’s own situation, coming the day after it was disclosed that he had listened in during Trump’s July phone call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy that helped trigger the impeachment inquiry.

“Any effort to intimidate witnesses or prevent them from talking with Congress — including State Department employees — is illegal and will constitute evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry,” said three House chairmen, Adam Schiff of the intelligence committee, Eliot Engel of Foreign Affairs, and Elijah Cummings of Oversight.

They said that if he was on Trump’s call, “Secretary Pompeo is now a fact witness in the House impeachment inquiry.” And they warned, “He should immediately cease intimidating Department witnesses in order to protect himself and the President.”

On Wednesday, the State Department’s inspector general is expected to brief congressional staff from several House and Senate appropriations, oversight, foreign affairs and intelligence committees on their requests for information and documents on Ukraine, according to an aide familiar with the planning. The inspector general acts independently from Pompeo.

The committees are seeking voluntary testimony from the current and former officials as the House digs into State Department actions and Trump’s other calls with foreign leaders that have been shielded from scrutiny.

In halting any appearances by State officials, and demanding that executive branch lawyers accompany them, Pompeo is underscoring Attorney General William Barr’s expansive view of White House authority and setting a tone for conflicts to come.

“I will use all means at my disposal to prevent and expose any attempts to intimidate the dedicated professionals,” Pompeo wrote.

When issuing a separate subpoena last week as part of the inquiry, the chairmen of the three House committees made it clear that stonewalling their investigation would be fought.

“Your failure or refusal to comply with the subpoena shall constitute evidence of obstruction of the House’s impeachment inquiry,” the three chairmen wrote.

Democrats often note that obstruction was one of the impeachment articles against Richard Nixon, who resigned the presidency in 1974 in the face of almost certain impeachment.

Volker played a direct role in arranging meetings between Rudy Giuliani, who is Trump’s personal lawyer, and Zelenskiy, the chairmen said.

The State Department said that Volker has confirmed that he put a Zelenskiy adviser in contact with Giuliani, at the Ukraine adviser’s request.

The former envoy, who has since resigned his position and so is not necessarily bound by Pompeo’s directions, is eager to appear as scheduled on Thursday, said one person familiar with the situation, but unauthorized to discuss it and granted anonymity. The career professional believes he acted appropriately and wants to tell his side of the situation, the person said.

Yovanovitch, the career diplomat whose abrupt recall from Ukraine earlier this year raised questions, is set to appear next week. The Democrats also want to hear from T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, a counselor at the State Department, who also listened in on the Trump-Zelenskiy call, they said.

It’s unclear whether Pompeo will comply with the committees’ request for documents by Friday. He had declined to comply with their previous requests for information.

Pompeo, traveling in Italy to meet with the country’s president and prime minister, ignored shouted question about the impeachment inquiry on Tuesday.

The House investigators are prepared for battle as they probe more deeply into the State Department to try to understand why the administration sought to restrict access to Trump’s conversations with foreign leaders.

The whistleblower alleged in an Aug. 12 letter to Congress that the White House tried to “lock down” Trump’s July 25 phone call with the new Ukrainian president because it was worried about the contents being leaked to the public.

In recent days, it has been disclosed that the administration similarly tried to restrict information about Trump’s calls with other foreign leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, by moving memos onto a highly classified computer system.

“It’s going to be one heck of a fight to get that information,” Schiff told House Democrats during a conference call over the weekend, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss the private session.

As Trump continued to rage against the impeachment inquiry, there was little evidence of a broader White House response. And few outside allies were rushing to defend the president.

Trump has long measured allies’ loyalty by their willingness to fight for him on TV, and he complained bitterly this week that few had done so. And those who did, including House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” he believed had flubbed their appearance, according to a person not authorized to publicly discuss private conversations.

Though there has been growing discontent with Giuliani in the West Wing and State Department, where some officials blame him for leading Trump into the Ukraine mess, the president continued to stand by his personal lawyer.

Giuliani, who hired former assistant special Watergate prosecutor Jon Sale a day after being hit with his own subpoena, continued to push false Biden corruption accusations and promised to fight against Democratic investigators.

The Ukraine matter remains the central focus as Democrats investigate whether Trump’s suggestion that the east European country’s new president be in touch with Giuliani and Barr to “look into” Biden amounts to a solicitation of foreign interference in the upcoming 2020 election.

The call unfolded against the backdrop of a $250 billion foreign aid package for Ukraine that was being readied by Congress but stalled by the White House.

Ukraine’s president told reporters Tuesday he has never met or spoken with Giuliani.

Zelenskiy insisted that “it is impossible to put pressure on me.” He said he stressed the importance of the military aid repeatedly in discussions with Trump, but “it wasn’t explained to me” why the money didn’t come through until September.

Not all business was halted between the White House and Congress. Even as the impeachment confrontation boiled, House Democrats briefed White House staffers on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s prescription drug legislation. Lowering drug costs is a top policy priority for both the speaker and the president. Joe Grogan, a top Trump domestic policy adviser, called it a “very productive start.”


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DHHR disputes foster care lawsuit, says it's making big strides

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch

CHARLESTON — A lawsuit filed Tuesday alleging the state is violating the constitutional rights of foster children will cost the state millions to defend, Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch said.

“The lawsuit that was filed today will cost the state of West Virginia millions of dollars and was filed by a company that has never contacted us to ask the question: ‘What are you doing to fix these problems?’ We welcome the opportunity to make our case in court,” Crouch said in a statement.

Twelve children in the state’s foster care system, ranging from ages 2 to 17, are named as plaintiffs in the federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday by A Better Childhood, a national advocacy group for children, Disability Rights West Virginia, a statewide disability rights organization, and Shaffer & Shaffer PLLC, a state law firm.

Lawyers for the children cite a range of alarming statistics and charge the state and DHHR with failing to provide the necessary services that will protect all of the children in the state’s custody. The lawsuit is brought as a class action, seeking to represent all of the 6,800 children in foster care, and focuses on three subclasses of children: those with disabilities, those close to aging out of the system without any preparation for adulthood, and children in kinship care.

The lawsuit names Gov. Jim Justice, Crouch, DHHR Deputy Secretary Jeremiah Samples, and Linda Watts, commissioner of the DHHR Bureau for Children and Families.

Justice could not be reach for comment Tuesday.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for Southern West Virginia, seeks an order directing the fundamental reform of the state’s foster care system. It also seeks a court to order DHHR to hire a neutral monitor to oversee the terms of the suit.

The allegations in the lawsuit are issues DHHR has been vocal about, including high rates of institutionalism for older children, high rates of out-of-state placements, overloaded caseworkers, lack of adequate foster families, and a lack of services for children with severe emotional and behavioral issues.

In his statement, Crouch said DHHR began making changes to the state’s child welfare system in 2013, and has increased those efforts every year since then. He cited the current transition to a managed care organization to organize health care, early adoption of the federal Family First Prevention Services Act, expansion of the Medicaid waiver for Children with Serious Emotional Disorders, more wraparound services for children and an increase in CPS staff.

“This administration and the West Virginia Legislature have invested more resources into the child welfare system than any other administration,” he said. “We have been consistent and deliberate in our commitment to the safety and well-being of West Virginia’s children.”

Crouch said DHHR has added more than 50 CPS positions throughout the state in the last year in areas where caseloads were high and budgeted additional CPS workers in the upcoming budget. Salaries have also increased 20% over the last two years, along with added recruitment and retention incentives.

Crouch also addressed the lawsuit’s allegations that the state sends children to dangerous facilities out of state, such as The Children’s Center of Ohio, which the lawsuit alleges utilizes controversial therapeutic tactics like peer shaming and requires children to perform manual labor such as clearing fields with a scythe.

“West Virginia has a quality group of residential providers who are committed to caring for children in our state; they share the same goal regarding the safety and well-being of our children and are considered partners with these ongoing improvements to the child welfare system,” Crouch said.

Crouch also said they are working closely with the Department of Justice.

“We value their guidance and input,” he said. “This is being done through a Memorandum of Understanding that avoids an expensive lawsuit that would likely cost the state millions of dollars; money that would reduce the amount that we have available for services and improvements to the system.”

The lawsuit states the DOJ agreement does not go far enough to address the issues and is self-enforcing with no teeth.

“The company that filed this lawsuit against the state of West Virginia has not reached out to me or any member of our leadership team to ask questions regarding what we are doing in this state or to even engage in conversation regarding these issues,” Crouch said. “It appears that their 12 a.m. embargoed lawsuit was aimed to gain attention in the press, as they have done in several other states. We are always willing to talk about our problems in West Virginia, and work together with our partners and others to improve the services and care of our children.”

Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of A Better Childhood, said Tuesday her organization would be more than willing to meet and discuss whether it is possible to resolve this case without lengthy litigation.

“But we believe that far more than a promise to reform is required and that substantial oversight of this system, by an outside monitor, will be required,” Lowry said.