NASHVILLE — U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., is under fire at home after a former federal Drug Enforcement Administration official told "60 Minutes" that efforts to combat the nation's growing opioid epidemic were stymied after pressure brought by large pharmaceutical companies and later by Congress.
In an interview that aired Sunday, Joe Rannazzisi, former head of the DEA's Office of Diversion Control, told the CBS news program that major distributors, including McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen, allowed drugs to be obtained by unscrupulous pharmacies and pain clinics and sold to people across the country "who had no legitimate need for those drugs."
The examination of the change in law was conducted by "60 Minutes" and The Washington Post.
Rannazzisi and former DEA attorney Jonathan Novak cited a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., and co-sponsored by 14 others, including Blackburn, that substantially undercut legal provisions the agency used to crack down on the drug distributors, including the ability to freeze suspicious shipments.
Sponsors argued the legislation was needed to let people with pain continue to receive the medication.
A Blackburn spokesman said in a statement Monday that "if there are unintended consequences from this bipartisan legislation — which was passed unanimously by the House, Senate and was signed into law by President Obama — they should be addressed immediately."
The Washington Post reported that after a meeting with Rannazzisi, a DEA attorney and congressional staffers, Marino and Blackburn later accused Rannazzisi of trying to "intimidate the United States Congress" and asked the Justice Department's inspector general to investigate.
The Washington Post and "60 Minutes" said their investigation found a "handful of members of Congress, allied with the nation's major drug distributors, prevailed upon the DEA and the Justice Department to agree to a more industry-friendly law, undermining efforts to stanch the flow of pain pills."
Blackburn announced earlier this month she is running for U.S. Senate to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn.
Former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., who is wrapping up a "listening tour" to determine whether he will run for the Corker seat, said the opioid epidemic is the "No. 1 issue" on the minds of various East Tennessee officials he visited last week and this week.
"What is so troubling about what we are seeing develop is what Tennesseans want are people who will go to Washington and stand up and fight for them and fight issues like this," Fincher said in an interview Monday.
A West Tennessee farmer who served three terms in Congress, Fincher said "career politics and forgetting who you work for — that's what's wrong in Washington. People's lives are at stake here. This issue, it's an epidemic that's all across our state, from Frog Jump to Mountain City. It's affecting all of us."
"This is why we're so interested in running for this seat to make sure that Tennesseans have a voice against special interests and what's going on in Washington."
Asked specifically about Blackburn's role, Fincher said "as far as Tennesseans go, I think the '60 Minutes' program was pretty clear what's happening here. This is not good. This is not good for Tennesseans and this epidemic is facing all of us and breaking our little counties, people are dying."
The Blackburn campaign said Fincher would have voted for the bill when it came up on the House floor for a voice vote.
But Fincher spokesman Joe Hall said the then-congressman was not in Washington that day. He was back home dealing with family farm issues in the wake of a family member's illness, Hall said.
Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini attacked Blackburn, saying, "At the crucial time when she should have been protecting us, Rep. Blackburn championed a bill that imprisoned even more Tennesseans in a devastating cycle of drug dependence."
According to The Washington Post, Blackburn has received $120,000 in campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry.
The Blackburn spokesman said the congressman has a "long history of working to combat the epidemic of opioid abuse, which has taken too many precious lives. She believes that Congress should continue its work to address the issue and conduct oversight."
This story was updated Oct. 16 at 11:59 p.m. with more information.