Robert Flanders, one of two Republicans running for the chance to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, is criticizing Whitehouse for backing a law blamed by some for making it more difficult to go after the opioid industry.
60 Minutes and The Washington Post reported last fall that a two-year-old bill has made it harder for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to make cases in the opioid industry. The measure became law with strong support from drug distributors and pharmacy chains.
After a followup story by the Post this week, Flanders renewed his criticism of Whitehouse on the issue.
“His portfolio of investments in drug companies placed him in direct conflict with multiple pieces of legislation favoring such companies that he has sponsored," Flanders said in a statement Monday. "The nation’s largest drug distribution firms and pharmacy chains drove this legislation through Congress during the height of the opioid epidemic.”
If elected, Flanders said he will use a qualified blind trust or its equivalent to avoid potential conflicts.
According to the Post, Whitehouse and his family owned between $95,000 and $250,000 in CVS Health stock when the opioid bill was considered in Congress. A Whitehouse spokesman told the Post that the senator's investments are managed by a broker.
Separately, Whitehouse spokeswoman Meaghan McCabe called Whitehouse a national leader in fighting the opioid crisis.
"His landmark Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act passed into law a range of policies to combat the misuse of prescription drugs, including expanding prescription drug monitoring programs that have proven to help reduce diversion," McCabe said. "He has also fought to increase federal funding to combat the opioid crisis, including the $3.3 billion that passed as part of the recent spending deal."
McCabe pointed to how a DEA official testified last December that the opioid bill criticized by Flanders has not necessarily blocked efforts to divert opioids. She also pointed a report showing the DEA has issued suspension orders against drug distributors after the law was passed.
"Nonetheless, the senator’s staff is already working with the DEA and DOJ to address any legitimate concerns with the bill," McCabe said. "He also awaits the required Department of Health and Human Services report on the law, now more than a year overdue, providing a thorough and unbiased assessment of the legislation’s effects, if any, on DEA diversion enforcement."
Flanders is one of two Republicans running in a primary that will be decided September 12. Whitehouse is seeking his third term. He first won election to the U.S. Senate in 2006.
The other would-be challenger, state Rep. Bobby Nardolillo (R-Coventry), has also faulted Whitehouse for exacerbating the opioid crisis. That triggered a response from Tom Coderre, a Democrat who previously worked for the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration and who now works for the administration of Gov. Gina Raimondo.
"It's troubling to see the opioid epidemic, which is one of the most significant public health challenges of our time, being used as political ammunition against U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., a lawmaker who has worked as hard as anyone in Congress to stem the addiction crisis and champion recovery," Coderre wrote in an op-ed published in The Providence Journal.