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 HarperGOP lawmakers urge improvements to cyber vulnerabilities resource Bipartisan leaders of House panel press drug companies on opioid crisis Republican chairman wants FTC to review mergers of drug price negotiators 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 HatchDems see Kavanaugh saga as playing to their advantage Kavanaugh accuser agrees to testify next week Judiciary Dems say GOP treating Kavanaugh accuser worse than Anita Hill MORE (R-Utah) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisDem senator calls on Kavanaugh to withdraw after second allegation Feinstein calls for hold on Kavanaugh consideration Senate Democrats increase pressure for FBI investigation of Kavanaugh 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 SessionsTrump distances himself from Rosenstein by saying Sessions hired him Gowdy: Declassified documents unlikely to change anyone's mind on Russia investigation Pompeo on Rosenstein bombshell: Maybe you just ought to find something else to do if you can't be on the team 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 ClintonSexual assault is not a game — stop using women to score political points Trump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle Presidential approval: It's the economy; except when it's not 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 EstesWorst-case scenario for House GOP is 70-seat wipeout Election Countdown: Takeaways from too-close-to-call Ohio special election | Trump endorsements cement power but come with risks | GOP leader's race now rated as 'toss-up' | Record numbers of women nominated | Latino candidates get prominent role in 2020 Rep. Ron Estes defeats opponent also named Ron Estes in GOP primary MORE (Kan.), Vicky HartzlerVicky Jo HartzlerRecord numbers of women nominated for governor, Congress Five GOP lawmakers mulling bid to lead conservative caucus Lawmakers target Chinese security companies over spy fears MORE (Mo.) and Chris SmithChristopher (Chris) Henry SmithFor Poland, a time for justice On The Money: Broad coalition unites against Trump tariffs | Senate confirms new IRS chief | Median household income rose for third straight year in 2017 | Jamie Dimon's brief battle with Trump CORRECTED: GOP lawmaker taken out of context in remarks on gay adoption 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 BaldwinDems seek to rebuild blue wall in Rust Belt contests The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump Poll: Democrats inch forward in Wisconsin MORE (Wis.) and Patty MurrayPatricia (Patty) Lynn MurraySenate Dem: Republicans have 'predetermined' outcome of Kavanaugh hearing Sunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Overnight Health Care: HHS diverts funds to pay for detaining migrant children | Health officials defend transfers | Lawmakers consider easing drug company costs in opioids deal MORE (Wash.) sent a letter to President TrumpDonald John TrumpGrassley: Dems 'withheld information' on new Kavanaugh allegation Health advocates decry funding transfer over migrant children Groups plan mass walkout in support of Kavanaugh accuser 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