Opioid-industry influence needs probe by Congress

An exhaustive, revealing two-part investigative series by the Associated Press and The Center for Public Integrity must not go unnoticed by federal and state lawmakers.

The news stories delved into the politics behind the nation’s opioid addiction epidemic, and what they uncovered was truly disturbing.

The bottom line: Pharmaceutical companies exert a great deal of influence on state and federal policies regarding opioids, the powerful painkillers that have claimed the lives of 165,000 people in the United States since 2000.

In light of the fact that opiate abuse has become a national epidemic – Ohio is second in drug overdose deaths – a full-fledged congressional inquiry based on the AP/CPI investigative series is warranted.

The wire service and the center spent seven months reviewing hundreds of documents, collecting and analyzing campaign finance and lobbying data and interviewing more than 150 officials, experts, advocates and others. The aim was to gain insights into how the political process influenced the response to the epidemic.

“Taken together, this information provides a unique look at how drug makers and their allies often sought to delay steps intended to combat opioid abuse while pushing their own priorities with lawmakers and regulators,” the Associated Press reported.

That alone should trigger a congressional investigation, but if federal lawmakers need a nudge from the public, here’s a key finding that raises a slew of concerns:

Drug companies and allied advocates spent more than $880 million on lobbying and political contributions at the state and federal levels over the past decade; by comparison, a handful of groups advocating opioid limits spent $4 million. The money covered a range of political activities important to the drug industry, including legislation and regulations related to opioids.

Influence peddling

A group called the Pain Care Forum, formed over a decade ago, has met with some of the highest-ranking health officials in the federal government, while quietly working to influence proposed legislation and reports on the problem of untreated pain, the news series revealed.

Pain Care Forum consists of drug makers and opioid-friendly non- profits they help fund. It is telling that the group is coordinated by the chief lobbyist for Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.

The issue of chronic pain looms large in any debate over the use of powerful drugs such as OxyContin, Percocet and Vicodin. There certainly are medical conditions that justify the use of such heavy-duty medication, but as national studies have shown, addiction is now a major concern. Indeed, the heroin and fentanyl epidemic that has swept the country can be traced back to the addiction to pain-management drugs.

In Ohio, a bill introduced by state Sen. John Eklund of Munson Township, R-18th, includes more controls aimed at enhancing oversight, addressing the issue of over-prescribing opioids and expanding access to naloxone, a proven antidote for heroin overdoses.

But as the Associated Press/The Center for Public Integrity investigation shows, the drug companies and their allies have a long reach.

They contributed to about 7,100 candidates for state-level offices, with the largest amounts going to governors and the lawmakers who control legislative agendas, such as house speakers, senate presidents and health-committee chairs.

“Two of the drug industry’s most active allies, the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network and the Academy of Integrative Pain Management, have contacted legislators and other officials about opioid measures in at least 18 states, even in some cases when cancer patients were specifically exempted from drug restrictions,” the investigative report contends. “State lawmakers often don’t know that these groups receive part of their funding from drug makers.”

Therein lies the problem. The American people tend to believe without question advocacy groups that present themselves as the defenders of patients experiencing chronic pain.

Congress has a responsibility to the nation to determine what effect the opioid industry’s influence has had on national and state public policies.

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