Execution drug cost quadruples for Texas prisons

HOUSTON (AP) — Texas is paying four times more for its execution drugs from a new supplier, putting it in line with a local consumer rate but well below the cost in at least one other death penalty state.

The prison agency in the nation's busiest death penalty state paid $13,500 for its most recent batch of pentobarbital at a cost of $1,500 per vial, compared to $350 per dose spent last year, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under an open records request.

The extra cost — a minuscule part of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's $3 billion annual budget — comes after the state's previous supplier refused to provide more of the powerful sedative last year, claiming it had become a target of execution opponents. Prison officials have since found a new compound pharmacy for pentobarbital, and have waged a successful legal battle to keep the business' name secret.

Backlash from capital punishment adversaries has curtailed the number of mainstream drug companies willing to provide lethal chemical doses to states. But it's not clear whether the increased cost is tied to that. Industry groups and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration say they do not track prices for the drug and could not speculate on what factors might have driven the cost up for Texas.

Several other state prison agencies have refused to release details on their drug purchases and Texas officials also have declined to comment on details.

"We're confident we're complying with all state and federal laws," Clark said.

The agency's higher cost does not appear extraordinary. A survey of nearly two dozen pharmacies in the Houston area shows Nembutal, the brand name for pentobarbital, sells for about $1,500.

The cost is a bargain compared to Missouri, which also uses pentobarbital for executions. Records earlier this year showed state officials paid as much as $8,000 per dose.

At least 10 inmates have execution dates in the coming months, including two in September, which means Texas' latest batch of pentobarbital is set to run out by the end of the year. The agency has confirmed it will attempt to purchase more drugs, but prison spokesman Jason Clark would not address whether the agency expects costs to rise further or whether it will use the same supplier.

The latest drug purchase, in mid-March, was made by the warden at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Huntsville Unit, where executions are carried out. It also included an additional $425 for tests to ensure the drugs' potency.

Texas and many other death penalty states confronted with execution-drug shortages have turned to compounding pharmacies, which custom-make medications that the FDA considers unapproved and does not verify their safety or effectiveness. But Texas' one-drug protocol has avoided the problems found in Ohio, Arizona and Oklahoma, which all use midazolam as part of a two- or three-drug mixture and had executions go awry in the last year.

The records provided to the AP are redacted to conceal references to Texas' new supplier.

Just a few years ago, it cost $83.55 in Texas for its former three-drug combination of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide and potassium chloride administered to condemned prisoners. But Hospira Inc., the sole U.S. manufacturer of sodium thiopental, stopped production in 2010 and dropped plans to produce it in Italy because the government there asked for guarantees it never would be used in executions.

Texas responded by switching to pentobarbital, but Denmark-based Lundbeck Inc., the drug's only U.S.-licensed maker, bowed to pressure from death penalty opponents and announced its medication was off-limits for capital punishment.

The Texas prison agency then opted to purchase pentobarbital from The Woodlands Compounding Pharmacy until the Houston-area company refused to provide more drugs in October. The owner wrote a letter to the agency accusing state officials of placing him "in the middle of a firestorm" of hate mail and potential litigation when his company's name became public.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has supported the prison agency's refusal to publicly name its new supplier, citing a "threat assessment" signed by Texas Department of Public Safety director Steven McCraw that says pharmacies selling execution drugs face "a substantial threat of physical harm."