Overnight Health Care: Opioid distributors summoned before Congress | Judge sets trial date in massive opioid lawsuit | Senators press DOJ to stop blocking medical marijuana

Happy Thursday, and welcome to Overnight Health Care. In today's edition: the House and Senate are pressing ahead with their investigations into the causes of and responses to the country's opioid epidemic. Also, an unlikely Senate pair are championing medical marijuana and House Republicans are pushing for abortion restrictions in family planning grants. 


Congress has summoned representatives of five drug distributors to testify on why they dumped millions of painkillers in small West Virginia towns, and what role it could have played in the state's ongoing opioid epidemic.

The Energy & Commerce Committee has been investigating "pill dumping" in West Virginia for the past year, uncovering some startling numbers.


In one case, Miami-Luken, Inc. sent 4 million pain pills to Oceana, a town of 1,390 people, from 2008 to 2015.

That's about 689 pills for every man, woman and child.

"Today, we have a more complete picture of what happened in places like West Virginia, and we will hold all parties accountable for their actions," said Rep. Gregg HarperGregory (Gregg) Livingston HarperCongress sends bill overhauling sexual harassment policy to Trump's desk Dems cry foul in undecided N.C. race Mississippi New Members 2019 MORE (R-Miss.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

"I, along with my colleagues, urge our witnesses to help us complete this puzzle so we can ensure this will never happen again."


Why it matters: Opioid distributors and manufacturers are facing many lawsuits from state and local governments, and the hearing could be a watershed moment for the pharmaceutical industry, akin to the hearings with tobacco executives in the same committee during the 1990s.     


Read all the details here.



Speaking of which... a federal judge has scheduled a trial in a massive lawsuit against opioid distributors

The first trial dealing with part of the case will occur in March 2019.

Judge Dan Polster has said he wants to reach a settlement, but the trial could help both sides test the waters and move the process forward.


Why is this a big deal? The case could have major implications for the distribution of opioids. Polster, who was nominated by Clinton to the bench, said in January that "my objective is to do something meaningful to abate this crisis."

"I'm confident we can do something to dramatically reduce the number of opioids that are being disseminated, manufactured and distributed," he said. "Just dramatically reduce the quantity and make sure that the pills that are manufactured and distributed go to the right people and no one else."


Read more here.



This is one bipartisan pairing you don't see every day. Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchKey Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock Trump awards Medal of Freedom to racing industry icon Roger Penske Trump holds more Medal of Freedom ceremonies than predecessors but awards fewer medals MORE (R-Utah) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisCastro hits fundraising threshold for December debate Poll: Majority of voters name TV as primary news source Buttigieg: Harris 'deserves to be under anybody's consideration' for vice president MORE (D-Calif) want the DOJ to stop slowing medical marijuana research.

Hatch, an 84-year-old Mormon Republican, has become one of the most unlikely champions of the benefits of medical marijuana, and is the sponsor of bipartisan legislation to ease researchers' access to marijuana for studies on its medical benefits.

In a letter sent to Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley Rosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe MORE, the senators said they are concerned by reports that the Justice Department is effectively blocking the DEA from taking action on more than two dozen requests to grow marijuana for use in research.


What do they want? The senators want Sessions to honor a new DEA policy. Sessions has been an outspoken opponent of marijuana throughout most of his career, and frequently speaks harshly about its use.


What's the change? To date, there is only one manufacturer -- the University of Mississippi -- licensed to produce marijuana for federally sanctioned research. But two years ago, recognizing an increased interest in marijuana research, the DEA changed its policy. At least 25 manufacturers have applied to produce research-grade marijuana, but the DEA has not approved any of the requests.


For the rest of the story, click here.



Republicans can't defund Planned Parenthood through Congress, so they're pushing HHS to act administratively.

Members of the conservative Republican Study Committee are asking HHS to add abortion restrictions to Title X, the federally funded family planning grant program.


What they want:

  • To ban recipients of Title X funds from offering abortion referrals.
  • To require Title X organizations be physically and financially separated from facilities that provide abortions.  


What this means:

These restrictions are essentially identical to ones proposed and upheld by the Supreme Court during the Reagan administration. They never went into effect because then-President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonImpeachment can't wait Turley: Democrats offering passion over proof in Trump impeachment The Hill's Morning Report - Dem dilemma on articles of impeachment MORE took office. But if HHS issued a regulation bringing them back, it would make it harder for Planned Parenthood to participate in the program.


From Emily Stewart, Planned Parenthood's vice president of public policy:

"That regulation would be designed to prevent women from coming to Planned Parenthood for birth control and cancer screenings, and other providers like Planned Parenthood ... Automatically, you would have 4 in 10 people in the program who would right away lose access to their health care provider."


From the RSC letter, led by Reps. Ron EstesRonald (Ron) Gene EstesElectric Avenue: The Democrats' crusade to rob from the poor to build electric cars for the rich Pompeo expected to visit Kansas on Thursday Congress must enact greater taxpayer protections MORE (Kan.), Vicky HartzlerVicky Jo HartzlerGOP lawmakers express concerns about Giuliani's work in Ukraine House approves amendment to reverse transgender military ban The House-passed bills that have ended up in the Senate 'graveyard' MORE (Mo.) and Chris SmithChristopher (Chris) Henry SmithGOP lawmaker to offer bill to create universal charitable deduction on 'Giving Tuesday' China threatens 'strong countermeasures' if Congress passes Hong Kong legislation This week: Congress returns to chaotic Washington MORE (N.J.):

"The Title X Family Planning Program is in dire need of review and updated regulations that ensure program integrity with respect to elective abortion."

"Co-located centers may be vulnerable to misuse of funds in support of abortion activities and send a message that abortion is considered a method of family planning in federally funded family planning programs," the members write.


The big picture: Even though federal funds, like Title X, are prohibited from funding abortions, anti-abortion groups and Republicans have long argued funds to abortion providers can still indirectly support the procedure.


Thursday roundup:

Dems question HHS over removal of LGBT, women's health web pages

A group of 17 Senate Democrats, led by Sens. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinIt's time for Congress to establish a national mental health crisis number The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems unveil impeachment measure; Vindman splits GOP The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems shift strategy on impeachment vote MORE (Wis.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenate passes bipartisan bill to permanently fund historically black colleges Overnight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson — Senate panel approves Trump FDA pick | Biden downplays Dem enthusiasm around 'Medicare for All' | Trump officials unveil program for free HIV prevention drugs for uninsured Trump's FDA nominee approved by Senate panel MORE (Wash.) sent a letter to President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrumps light 97th annual National Christmas Tree Trump to hold campaign rally in Michigan 'Don't mess with Mama': Pelosi's daughter tweets support following press conference comments MORE expressing concern about the removal of LGBT health and scientific information from the HHS Office of Women's Health (OWH) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) websites.

"We are troubled by these recent actions, which, coupled with other actions your administration has taken to restrict information for LGBT people, reveal a pattern of censorship that fosters discrimination and undermines access to evidence-based health care resources that aid millions across the country," the senators wrote.

A watchdog group has been flagging the removal of resources and information aimed at improving health for lesbian and bisexual women, as well as information that focused on breast cancer.

View the letter from the Democrats here.


FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb vs. drug companies and insurers, part 73

Gottlieb, the administration's de facto attack dog on drug prices, took another bite at drug companies and insurers -- this time, over the costs of cancer treatment. From his remarks at the Community Oncology Conference in National Harbor, Md.

"I don't think that any patient should be penalized for their biology. The true purpose of insurance is to shelter patients from financial ruin in the event of a catastrophic illness.

And a cancer diagnosis is the definition of a catastrophic illness.

But the perverse reality of the market today is that cancer treatment comes with its own financial toxicity."


What we're reading:

Trump court pick thinks Planned Parenthood 'kills over 150,000 females a year' (HuffPo)

As cancer drug prices climb, value not keeping pace (Reuters)

A giant gorilla and a winged wolf: Does 'Rampage' get the science of CRISPR right? (Stat)


State by state:

These volunteers are battling Idaho's government to expand Medicaid (Buzzfeed)

Medicaid expansion still unresolved in Virginia Assembly (Associated Press)


From our opinion page: 

Naloxone is not a moral hazard -- it's a good tool for physicians to have in their kits 

American leadership against deadly epidemics reaches a decision point