Eyre’s Pulitzer-winning work shows power of hard data, big numbers

Joseph Burns

About Joseph Burns

Joseph Burns (@jburns18), a Massachusetts-based independent journalist, is AHCJ’s topic leader on health insurance. He welcomes questions and suggestions on insurance resources and tip sheets at joseph@healthjournalism.org.

Eric Eyre

In two days in December, the Charleston Gazette-Mail published two blockbuster articles about the opioid crisis in West Virginia, the results of months of reporting by Eric Eyre, the paper’s statehouse reporter.

Anyone who read them would recognize that Eyre’s work was outstanding, if only for the numbers he included in each piece. Over six years, the nation’s largest drug distributors shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to pharmacies in the state, he reported. In that same period, 1,728 West Virginians fatally overdosed on those two painkillers, he wrote. Drug distributors shipped enough hydrocodone and oxycodone for each of the state’s 1.8 million residents to have 433 pills.

If you haven’t read it already, here are the first 114 words of the first article in the two-part series.

“Follow the pills and you’ll find the overdose deaths.

“The trail of painkillers leads to West Virginia’s southern coalfields, to places like Kermit, population 392. There, out-of-state drug companies shipped nearly 9 million highly addictive — and potentially lethal — hydrocodone pills over two years to a single pharmacy in the Mingo County town.

“Rural and poor, Mingo County has the fourth-highest prescription opioid death rate of any county in the United States.

“The trail also weaves through Wyoming County, where shipments of OxyContin have doubled, and the county’s overdose death rate leads the nation. One mom-and-pop pharmacy in Oceana received 600 times as many oxycodone pills as the Rite Aid drugstore just eight blocks away.”

Part two, “’Suspicious’ drug order rules never enforced by state,” ran the next day.

On Monday, Eyre was named the 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winner in Investigative Reporting. The award is “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,” the Pulitzer judges wrote.

For his work, Eyre also won the first-place Investigative (small) award in AHCJ’s Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, the Scripps Howard First Amendment Award, and his series was a finalist for the Selden Ring award.

About the series, AHCJ’s judges wrote, “We’ve read many stories about prescription opioid addiction, but this one offered a new and exceptionally dark perspective by focusing on commercial distribution of the pills. Reporter Eric Eyre showed how drug wholesalers routinely shipped vast quantities of pills to small, independent pharmacies and how West Virginia’s Board of Pharmacy failed to enforce regulations that could have limited those sales. His findings were so clear and compelling that various agencies, including the Board of Pharmacy, had to take action. The Charleston Gazette-Mail deserves great credit for investing the time and resources needed for this type of reporting, which is a pillar of our democracy.”

In his entry for the AHCJ award, Eyre explained that he worked with attorneys for the newspaper (circulation 37,000) to unseal a lawsuit that included details about drug firms’ shipments to counties and pharmacies. He filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act to get previously confidential records from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. In spreadsheets, the records showed the number of pain pills sold to every pharmacy in the state, and the drug wholesalers’ shipments to all 55 counties in West Virginia.

“We believe we are the first newspaper in America to ever obtain confidential sales data for drug distributors and pharmacies,” he wrote in his AHCJ award questionnaire.

To display the data in compelling ways, Eyre worked with Andrew Brown, the newspaper’s data analyst.

The series had an almost-immediate effect on state officials and the drug distributors. Within two weeks of the publication of the two articles, the state pharmacy board voted unanimously to enforce the law requiring drug wholesalers to report suspicious drug orders from pharmacies. The board had failed to take such action over the previous 15 years. Citing Eyre’s work, one county sued three drug distributors: McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen. Within days, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen settled a four-year legal case and agreed to pay $36 million, the largest such settlement in state history. Those funds will be used to support addiction-treatment programs.

You can read the coverage from the Gazette-Mail and Poynter, and listen to a local NPR interview with Eyre. AHCJ members can log in to read Eyre’s contest questionnaire. Eyre will be talking about “Covering the opioid epidemic beyond cities” at AHCJ’s Rural Health Journalism Workshop in June.

This isn’t Eyre’s first award-winning project on health – in 2007, he chronicled the abysmal state of dental health in West Virginia and shared with AHCJ how he reported the story.

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