Senate report assails Big Pharma for payments to patient groups for opioid-friendly messaging

fuelingepidemic-235x300A U.S. Senate Committee has ripped Big Pharma for making millions of dollars in pernicious payments to patient advocacy groups, so they could legitimize and assist in promoting powerful prescription painkillers, a practice that investigators say helped fuel the opioid drug abuse epidemic.

The committee report says:

Patient advocacy organizations and professional societies play a significant role in shaping health policy debates, setting national guidelines for patient treatment, raising disease awareness, and educating the public. Even small organizations— with ‘their large numbers and credibility with policy makers and the public’—have ‘extensive influence in specific disease areas.’ Larger organizations with extensive funding and outreach capabilities ‘likely have a substantial effect on policies relevant to their industry sponsors.’

In its report on the committee’s findings, the Wall Street Journal quoted the panel’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri observing, “The fact that these same manufacturers provided millions of dollars to the groups . . . suggests, at the very least, a direct link between corporate donations and the advancement of opioids-friendly messaging.”

The group’s work, titled “Fueling the Epidemic,” found that five makers of opioid painkillers gave $9 million or so between 2012 and 2017 to nonprofits, notably patient-advocacy organizations and professional societies for doctors treating pain. The groups included the: Academy of Integrative Pain Management, American Academy of Pain Management, American Pain Society, American Pain Foundation, and the National Pain Foundation.

The Big Pharma companies also forked over more than $1.6 million to doctors and other individuals affiliated with the groups between 2013 and the present.

The drug makers involved, and their opioid products included: Purdue Pharma (OxyContin); Insys Therapeutics, (Subsys); Depomed, (which sold Nucynta until late last year); and Johnson & Johnson, (Duragesic).

The patient groups insist their integrity and independence was not compromised by Big Pharma donations. But critics have assailed them for taking the money in tacit fashion and drug makers for giving these kinds of donations. Drug makers call the gifts philanthropic and say they help to better patient care but similar such gifts also have prompted crackdowns by the U.S. Justice Department and other regulators.

Insys, one of the big donors to patient groups, already has come under fire from McCaskill and her committee for its subterfuges in selling Subsys, a form of fentanyl — a synthetic opioid with a giant wallop — sprayed under the tongue.

Perdue, the other major patient group donor spotlighted in the committee study, has just said it will curtail its aggressive OxyContin hype. Those sales, advertising, and marketing practices, as well as issues with the drug itself, already have played their negative role in the company paying hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements, with even more suits in the works and authorities stepping up their scrutiny of the family-owned drug empire.

Investigative reporters, lawmakers, regulators, and medical experts only now are piecing together the corrosive role of Big Pharma’s big spending in the opioid epidemic.

Abuses and overdoses of the medications, including their related and illicit street drugs like fentanyl and heroin, have become the leading cause of death for Americans 50 and younger, killing more than 64,000 in 2016 alone.

Analysts now have put a price tag on this sad carnage: more than $1 trillion since 2001 and more than $500 billion over the next three years. They attribute that cost to “lost earnings and productivity losses to employers. Early deaths and substance abuse disorders also take a toll on local, state and federal government through lost tax revenue,” NPR has reported.

The public broadcaster also quoted Corey Rhyan, a senior analyst who helped calculate the epidemic’s giant tab, and he underscored its human cost:  “The average age at which opioid deaths are occurring — you’re looking at something in the late 30s or early 40s. As a result, you’re looking at people that are in the prime of the productive years of their lives.”

The report by Altarum, a nonprofit that studies health economics, attributed more than $215 billion since 2001 of the epidemic’s expenses to medical costs, those stemming “largely from emergency room visits, ambulance costs and the use of naloxone, a drug used to stop and reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.”

In my practice, I see the significant harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, and the huge damage that can be inflicted on them by dangerous drugs, including and especially opioids. I’ve said before and would repeat that the epidemic demands urgent and factually founded responses.

The Trump Administration hasn’t come to grips with the crisis, as even the nation’s latest budget shows: Though some credit the president and his men with seeming to boost funding to battle opioids, the budget, at the same time, slashes at programs vital to the fight. Trump himself also seems focused, wrongly, on how law enforcement mainly and not medical treatment will solve the crisis. It also is good to see, though, that some of the blue-nosed, counter-factual partisans who have resisted studies on drugs and addictions have given way, allowing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to lead research on the most effective ways to deal with opioid abusers.

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