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Another tale from the Pulitzers

Posted: April 20, 2017 1:11 p.m.
Updated: April 21, 2017 1:00 a.m.

A Facebook post by a friend of mine reminded me that there was another Pulitzer Prize winner I wanted to mention last week.

My friend had posted a question after reading recent reports that the artist formerly and again known as Prince managed to hide his apparent addiction to opioid painkillers by putting them in aspirin and vitamin bottles. That alleged addiction -- I have not, personally, seen proof myself -- apparently led to his death last year from fentanyl.

Whatever the case, my friend wanted to know why the mass media was so strongly vilifying Prince and not the pharmaceutical companies making billions from opioid addiction.

That’s when I remembered Eric Eyre, a reporter for the relatively small daily Charleston (W. Va.) Gazette-Mail, who won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

Eyre won, according to the official Pulitzer website, “for courageous reporting, performed in the face of powerful opposition, to expose the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose death rates in the country.”

Eyre submitted three stories: “Drug firms fueled ‘pill mills’ in rural W. Va.” from May 23, 2016; “780M pills, 1,728 deaths” from Dec. 18, 2016; and “Pill rules not enforced” from the next day, Dec. 19, 2016.

Eyre’s first story (which, for some reason, was listed last on the Pulitzer website) really caught my attention. Here’s the very first sentence:

“Over five years, the nation’s largest drug wholesalers flooded notorious ‘pill mill’ pharmacies in West Virginia’s smallest towns and poorest counties with hundreds of thousands of painkillers, according to court records the companies had sought to keep secret for more than a year.”

Think about that opening line and the kind of work that would go into telling a story -- or three -- that fed off from it. Then keep in mind that Eyre, according to an interview with Poynter.org, is the Gazette-Mail’s government reporter. Specifically, he covers the West Virginia statehouse. And he handles a monthly night police beat, or shift, too.

As Poynter.org noted, he doesn’t have time to be a special projects reporter and can’t take months off to work on just one story. Perhaps that’s why while the first story was written in May 2016, the other two appeared in December.

How do I even begin to summarize what Eyre did in three stories into the remainder of this column? Some statistics might help. Eyre determined that in one town with the entirely odd name of War, population 808, the amount of opioids sold by a drug distributor to a single pharmacy would have provided 350 hydrocodone pills to every person in the town.

That’s 300,000-plus pills.

Eyre’s reporting grew out of a state lawsuit alleging “drug firms shipped an excessive number of pain pills to West Virginia between 2007 and 2012, helping to fuel the state’s ongoing prescription drug problem.”

Here’s another statistic from the first story: One company shipped 60.9 million hydrocodone pills and 26.6 million oxycodone tablets to West Virginia during a five-year period. “That’s 33 hydrocodone pills and 15.5 oxycodone pills for every man, woman and child in West Virginia,” Eyre wrote.

Scary.

In his second and third stories, Eyre showed how the drug wholesalers targeted southern West Virginia, especially four counties -- Wyoming, McDowell, Boone and Mingo -- that are the top four counties for opioid-related overdose deaths in the U.S.

It turned out that the three top wholesale distributors “disregarded rules to report suspicious orders for controlled substances in West Virginia to the state Board of Pharmacy,” Eyre wrote. Meanwhile that very board failed to enforce regulations that had been in place since 2001, “giving spotless inspection reviews to small-town pharmacies in the southern counties that ordered more pills than could possibly be taken by people who really needed medicine for pain.”

The wholesalers, in turn, blamed the doctors and pharmacists for writing and filling illegal prescriptions.

But, a retired pharmacist pointed out, “They’re all three in bed together. The distributors knew what was going on. They just didn’t care.” And they made billions, according to Eyre.

In his third story, Eyre reported that the pharmacy board not only didn’t enforce their own regulations, they never passed on suspicious drug reports to law enforcement. Not a single one.

Incredible.

And incredible, Pulitzer-deserving reporting by Eyre.

West Virginia’s lucky to have him.

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