Photo by Connor Burnard / Assistant Lifestyles Editor
Story by Anthony Merriweather / Contributing Writer
Students and faculty gathered in the Student Union Building Thursday as a part of MTSU’s Pulitzer Prize Lecture series to gain insight into journalist Eric Eyre’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting on the opioid crisis, alongside West Virginia attorney Patrick McGinley.
Eyre’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia consisted of exposing major drug distributors that failed to report the spike in over-the-counter drugs in small counties throughout West Virginia. Eyre discovered drug wholesalers had shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia in just six years. Mom-and-pop drug stores in West Virginia were seeing drug sales exceeding the true population of the towns in which they were located. With 818 reported overdose deaths in 2016, reports show that West Virginia holds the highest drug overdose rate in the nation. Of those reported deaths, 86 percent had consumed at least one opioid, which calculates to more than 700 West Virginia residents dying from opioid-related overdoses last year.
“They were supposed to be reporting to the DEA and to the Board of Pharmacy,” Eyre said. “It’s called a suspicious order report. We had cases where you had 20,000 oxycodone on a Monday to one pharmacy in a town of like 800 people, and on Tuesday, you have another 50,000 hydrocodone, and then on Wednesday, 30,000 oxycodone. That’s supposed to raise red flags. That’s supposed to be reported.”
Eyre dealt with acquiring sensitive shipment data from the Drug Enforcement Administration that had been shared with the office of West Virginia’s attorney general. Eyre and McGinley battled with many instances of stonewalling in gathering information to expose actions resembling that of a legal cartel. Government officials often refused to cooperate or communicate and, at first, did not fully disclose documentation.
Parties involved knowingly disregarded rules to report suspicious orders for controlled substances in West Virginia to the state Board of Pharmacy, despite the increase in painkiller-related deaths.
“They had all the information,” McGinley said. “State agencies knew. Local police departments knew because of the overdoses and the deaths. It’s not a question of not having the information, it’s acting on the information.”
Senior Kent Humerickhouse shared his thoughts on the talk.
“The biggest takeaway is how litigious everything is,” said Humerickhouse, who is studying economics. “It was more about the law and less about saying there is a wrong that’s happening. Lives are actually being lost, and the profit-earning entities aren’t really interested in the human component of what they’re doing. They just see people dying. They say, ‘OK. Well, we can ship another 20,000,’ like it doesn’t matter.”
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