WASHINGTON — The co-owner of the Framingham pharmacy blamed for the fungal meningitis outbreak that has killed 32 people strode grimly into a congressional hearing Wednesday overflowing with politicians, patient advocates, and media awaiting an explanation for one of the worst public health crises in decades.
But Barry Cadden immediately made clear he would provide no answers in his first public appearance since New England Compounding Center was tied to the illnesses. “Mr. Chairman, on the advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer,” he said repeatedly in response to questions, exercising his constitutional right not to incriminate himself. Cadden appeared to be reading from an index card.
The four-hour hearing was marked by sharp confrontations between members of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and the Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg. Many of the House members said their constituents included some of the 461 people sickened in the outbreak.
Hamburg insisted that her agency did not have the authority it needed to properly oversee compounding pharmacies, which are supposed to custom-make drugs for patients who cannot use manufactured medications. That is why New England Compounding was able to keep making drugs, she said, despite a dozen complaints about its practices and several investigations by FDA and state officials dating to 1999. Several Republican committee members disputed her assertions, saying the agency simply chose not to act.
Democrats said they want to pass legislation by the end of the year authorizing the FDA to inspect compounding pharmacies and obtain their records. Republicans said they are open to giving the agency more authority — if the FDA proves it needs it by providing hundreds of internal e-mails discussing its dealings with New England Compounding, which the agency so far has failed to do.
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