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Former DEA investigator details Blackburn's role in restrictive opioid legislation

Zach Vance • Oct 11, 2018 at 11:19 PM

A former U.S. Drug Enforcement investigator said Thursday that U.S. Senate Republican nominee Marsha Blackburn’s congressional office was warned that opioid legislation she supported and was ultimately passed into law would undercut the agency’s efforts to investigate suspicious drug shipments.

Jim Geldhof, a retired DEA diversion program manager from Detroit, said he and other DEA agents openly expressed concern about the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in April 2016.

Geldhof, in an interview with the Press organized by a campaign worker for Blackburn’s challenger, Democrat Phil Bredesen, said the bill effectively made it more difficult for investigators to freeze large shipments of opioids by having to prove “immediate danger” instead of “imminent danger.”

“What it did was change one of the words, and the basis for it in the past was you had to show imminent danger to the public health and safety. They changed it to ‘immediate.’ Now that doesn't sound like much, but it's huge,” Geldhof said.

“Because, if you're shipping hundreds of thousands of pills to a pharmacy and you're a drug company, we can pretty well know something bad is going to happen. That's imminent. I can't tell you it's going to happen in the next six hours. That's immediate.”

Even before the law was passed, Geldhof, who said he’s never been the “political type,” admitted the DEA rarely took the step of freezing shipments of opioids, but with its passage, it basically took that action “off the table.”

Geldhof said the opioid wholesalers, pharmacies, distributors or manufacturers being investigated were often warned multiple times if they were engaged in suspect behavior. When the DEA attempted to suspend or take away a suspected company’s license, this legislation gave them another chance to submit a “corrective action plan,” Geldhof said.

“I can assure you that every drug company we went after to take away their license had multiple chances to change their behavior. We'd go in there and say, 'Look, what are you doing here?' Miami-Luken, the one shipping to West Virginia, we must have been in there five or six times. To make it sound like we went in for minor deals and pulled their license off the wall is ... I find it personally offensive and insulting to be honest with you,” Geldhof said. “I mean how many cracks at the apple do you get? You've already been asked four or five times and told this isn't working and now we're going to allow them to have a corrective action plan?”

All these concerns were aired to lawmakers, including Blackburn, Geldhof said, but the legislation still passed.

“When we saw the law they proposed ... everybody in the field that I'm aware of absolutely couldn't believe it,” Geldhof said.

Joe Rannazzisi, former head of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, was accused of “intimidating” Blackburn and U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., for supporting the bill and claiming they “supported criminals.” The Office of Inspector General was ultimately asked to investigate.

Blackburn has said the law was created out of a sincere effort to make sure people with a legitimate need had access to prescription drugs.

Blackburn also told the Tennessean in October 2017 that the true impact of the legislation is not known because the DEA has not submitted a report to Congress, which is mandated under law. In response to that, Geldhof said the law actually requires the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to submit the report.

A spokesperson for Blackburn said Thursday the congressman understands how much the opioid epidemic is hurting Tennessee families.

“She regularly meets with victims, healthcare providers, and law enforcement officers across the state to discuss steps the federal government should take to end the opioid epidemic, and she recently introduced bipartisan bills to increase civil and criminal penalties for bad actors and give law enforcement the tools they need to go after bad actors,” Blackburn spokesperson Abbi Sigler said.

“While Democrats point fingers and politicize a public health crisis, Marsha will continue to work towards a systemic solution that includes taking a tough stance on the distribution of illicit opioids and improves prevention and recovery efforts.”

Blackburn, who has received more than $860,000 from drug companies during her 16 years in Congress, was one of 27 lawmakers who missed a vote on opioid legislation that undid some of components of the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.

Rannazzisi and Geldhof were both featured in a 2017 CBS “60 Minutes” and Washington Post investigation that focused on the role of drug companies in fueling the epidemic and their influence over members of Congress.

On Wednesday, Bredesen released an ad featuring Geldhof, and his campaign organized interviews with Geldhof for Northeast Tennessee media outlets.

After a Johnson City Chamber of Commerce roundtable Thursday, Bredesen said he had never met Geldof, but he was committed to repealing the Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act.

“Obviously, I’ve talked about this in the campaign, and she’s kind of came back with ‘Oh, no. There’s nothing to all that, and by the way, I’ve passed this legislation and all this other stuff.’ So we’re just saying, ‘Okay, let’s just talk to some real people who were involved,” Bredesen said. “I’ve never met this guy.”

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